Weight Loss During Pregnancy

So it’s safe to say that pregnancy hasn’t been anything like what I expected it to be. I’m not going to harp on about the gory details of severe morning sickness that lasts for 40 weeks because it’s very rare and most people will never experience the ‘joy’ of it, at least for that length of time. What I will focus on, is how amazing the human body is. And how little control you have over this whole amazing journey of creating a human from scratch.

The Dude or Dudette's room, finally ready to go.

The Dude or Dudette’s room, finally ready to go.

In the first trimester, I lost weight. No surprises there, I was vomiting so much I was hospitalised. In the second trimester, my body really came into its own: I gained weight like a trooper, with an aim to eat as much nutritious food as I could get down and keep down, and my baby grew like a little champion. In the third trimester, the vomiting and nausea returned with a vengeance and I have been losing weight again. Remarkably, the baby continues to gain weight – proof that the human body is simply incredible in just “knowing” what to do throughout this whole process. It’s now officially “baby month” as the baby is due to arrive any day now….something which is extremely exciting and equally frustrating for a control freak like me!

WHEN is “D-Day?” Such a simple little question. Thoughts race through my head about when it could be, where I will be (hopefully not at work taking a Pilates class!), what it will be like. I can handle the excitement of not knowing the sex of our little bubba, but not knowing when it will arrive is a huge challenge for me. I feel like I’m in the final days of preparation for an Ironman, only I don’t know which day I’m actually going to have to pull it all together to perform….

Control freak aside, I know I will cope with whatever labour throws at me when the time does come; know after everything I’ve been through that I am strong enough for that. I can’t wait to become a “mother”, and to meet this little person who’s shared the toughest 9 months of my life with me.

Birthday Cake: despite my nausea, I couldn't break my annual tradition of making myself a cake and eating some of it.  It wasn't much, but that's a win!

Birthday Cake: despite my nausea, I couldn’t break my annual tradition of making myself a cake and eating some of it. It wasn’t much, but that’s a win!

What scares me is the presence of Ana, ever there perched on my shoulder and nattering away its useless voice. Every time you get weighed at the Obstetrician’s office. And you’ve lost weight. Or gained weight. Every time you think about life after pregnancy – returning to racing, eating (normally, without vomiting…), running. Breastfeeding. Every time you see your body in its ever-changing state (why aren’t there any stretch marks there? Is that even possible?!). And of course, all the unknowns about how you and your body will be afterward. I put a lot of the uncertainty down to being so sick for so long, which invariably makes you dread eating food but forcing yourself to do it anyway. In some ways, it’s like being in recovery all over again. And then when you LOSE weight despite all the effort to keep some nutrition down, it’s like an extra factor messing with your head.

I am all too aware that statistically, the postpartum period is a high risk one for ED relapse. And that those of us who have had ED’s are also at higher risk of postpartum depression and anxiety. I’m concerned that I hear the little voices of Ana already planning “when the baby is out we’ll….[insert damaging behaviour here]”. I guess I somehow thought that by being all-absorbed with the love for the little person inside of me, there would be no room left for those thoughts. I was wrong.

I feel like pregnancy does make you strong enough to fight those thoughts and do everything in your ability to nurture the child within; my question is, what happens to that force once you are no longer carrying the baby inside of your body?

My hope is that the strength will carry over. Ultimately, that little person, whether inside of me or out in the big wide world, is relying on me and only me to be its whole world – at least for the start of its life. It’s still me who has to feed it, love it, care for it. And I can’t do the best possible job of that if Ana is taking up any significant real estate in my head. I also like to tell myself that after everything I have been through in the past few years, if major relapse was going to happen, it would have happened already: if major foot surgery, 18 months away from my beloved running, and 3 miscarriages doesn’t push you over the edge I think you can stand tall and be proud of where you have gotten in your recovery.

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I’m choosing to focus on my “strategies” and all the positive things to come, rather than the fear of relapse and Ana returning. Those strategies include having races pencilled in, so that I can feel like “myself” again in the not too distant future (it has been the longest time since I have raced an Ironman, fit and healthy, and I cannot wait to do it as a ‘Mum’ with my husband and baby cheering me on). And focusing on new friendships: up until this point in my life, I feel like I have friends who knew me as anorexic, then when we moved here 5 years ago, I formed a heap of new friendships with a clean slate – mostly triathlon-related friendships, and those people have no idea about how much of my life Ana took up. And I like it that way. But I have been missing spending time with a lot of those people with the reduced training that comes with surgery then pregnancy. I am excited to meet yet another bunch of friends through mother’s groups etc, and to start the next chapter in my life. I’m excited to blend that with my return to racing and hopefully have the best of both worlds: new mum, and Ironman comeback Queen. I’m blessed enough to have had a number of amazing women pave the way before me (see previous post on elite athletes and motherhood) and show me that not only can it be done, but you can actually come back even stronger.

Bring on 2015: New baby, new (stronger) body, and a long-awaited return to Ironman!

Happy Training,

K xoxo

My gluten-free Iced Vovos...presentation was a fail but I am assured they tasted amazing!

My gluten-free Iced Vovos…presentation was a fail but I am assured they tasted amazing!

Exercise and Recovery

I’m going to be a little controversial with this post. I’m going to suggest that for a large majority of ED sufferers, recovery would be best done while they maintain their work or school, and for athletes, their training.

Before everyone gets riled up about it, I am not talking about those so severely undernourished that they are at risk of dropping dead from a massive heart attack at any minute, or those with suicidal tendencies….clearly an inpatient program would be best for these patients (at that stage in their recovery, even if those programs for the most part keep people alive but do not really assist in long term recovery and have notoriously high relapse rates….but that’s a post for another day). I am talking about the majority of ED sufferers who are under their individual ideal weight (note I did not say “under BMI 18” – how ridiculous, what about the person with a bigger frame who is still starving but able to maintain a BMI of 21? Are they “less sick”? of course not), are still participating in work or school, and particularly those who are athletes and see that as a part of their identity. I’m talking about the people who are functioning in society, but are significantly affected day to day by their eating disorder – maybe with the accompanying depression, lack of energy and concentration, fatigue, social isolation and the other joyous side effects.

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Here’s why. Think about this: What is the biggest challenge in recovery? I would argue that one of the hardest parts about recovery is learning to lose the “ED” identity and to learn who you really are as a person. Only once that has occurred can one begin to truly move on with their lives and to want to nourish their mind and body. Only then do they have a sense of self to take care of – a reason to recover, if you will. For recovering for someone else, or to get out of Inpatient care, or for the sake of a “goal weight”, will never do it. That typically leads quickly back to a relapse and the cycle that entails.

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Inpatient care, while necessary to sustain a life on the edge, takes away all the other factors in the patient’s life that will be the foundation of their true identity as they return to health: their job, their hobbies, their social network, and for athletes, their training and usually tightknit support crew – coaches and fellow athletes. Not only does it take those things away, it actually forces the patient to focus 100% of their time and energy on the eating disorder. Their days are spent focusing on food, psychology, analysis, resting, scales, and usually the added bonus of in-house competition between patients on who is the “most sick”. Statistically, success rates aren’t good – the weight is temporarily gained, yes; but in the long term, recovery rates can be as low as 20% for patients who have had an ED for an extended time period. The statistics have not improved even after a few decades of treatment in this way. Why not?

At some point, the patient needs to learn how to function in society in a healthy way, and for this to happen there needs to be a reason for the patient to want to get better. Want being the key word here. When an athlete-patient is allowed to keep training, albeit at a reduced load, there is an all-important reason for them to put in all the hard yards day to day that go with recovering from an eating disorder. There can be clear goals and rewards: you gain X weight, you get to train X amount. You eat X foods, you get to attend X training sessions. If you don’t, you can attend but you have to sit out and watch. Sure, it’s harder to gain weight while still training. But guess what? Eating like an athlete is hard, full stop. Years on I still find it a challenge day to day. When you train hard, you have to work even harder on fuelling your “machine” (body), and the sooner a patient gets used to that process the sooner they can master it. Secondly, gaining the weight as muscle, bone density and fat via increased food and some continuation of training is much healthier and less traumatic for the patient than gaining fat alone on a resting protocol. Lastly but most importantly, there are three overwhelming psychological benefits to this approach:

1) the motivation-reward system is clear and immediate;

2) the social interaction with teammates and coaches is maintained, which is so important;

3) the patient is nurtured through the process of minimising their ED identity and replacing that empty space with their “healthy athlete identity”. {You can replace “athlete” and “training” with anything else relevant – student and school, physio and work, etc.}

The key to this process is to have a fantastic support team who can facilitate this transition. For me, it was a brilliant Sports Dietician (it was her idea to allow me to keep training – every other rehab program I had entered forced me to rest and spiral into depression), a brilliant Psychologist who specialises in treating athletes with eating disorders, a Coach who was on board with the plan, and a flexible workplace (I was still studying at University but my part-time job as a research assistant allowed me to set my own work hours, so I could go in when my energy levels were highest – early in the morning). For the most part, my dietician set out my goals for the week and my rewards – when and if I could train etc. All the while she communicated with my psychologist, who from the get-go has focussed on establishing my identity as an athlete. As he reminded me recently, I have always done best when we focus on what my body can do (as an athlete), not how it looks. All body fat % and weight measures were taken away from me, and replaced by more relevant measures like time trials and power outputs. And the only way I can get stronger, fitter, faster, and keep up with my teammates? To eat. Simple as that. I know when I skimp, I fall behind, and as a competitive person, that is motivation enough to nourish my body.

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The best part is that the system WORKS. And it’s not just a bandaid fix – it works in the long term. To this day, years on from the start of my “recovery”, I still have a crappy day at work, feel “fat” as my go-to coping mechanism, and then know that if I go and do a solid training session, by the time I walk back through that door at the end I am going to be happy with my body and what it can do for me. Nothing to do with how it looks or what it weighs. Simply what it can do. And that’s pretty cool. Add in the extra bonuses of a good training session – fresh air, endorphins, improved fitness, mental clarity, relaxation – and it’s a win-win situation.

I make it sound easy and like the obvious solution, which for me, it was (obvious, not easy!). Nothing else had worked over the decade beforehand. And certainly this system wouldn’t work for everyone either, but for athletes, I would argue that it is the best way to structure treatment. Realistically, there needs to be a change in the way we treat eating disorders in Australia as the current inpatient systems are not working in terms of long-term outcomes and relapse rates. There is no easy answer.

Food for thought anyway.

Happy training xo

From Rehab to Racing

8 weeks post-foot surgery, happy to be out of plaster and trying to stay positive...

8 weeks post-foot surgery, happy to be out of plaster and trying to stay positive…

I flew today.

Well, it felt like it. 6km run at good pace with minimal foot discomfort, able to find my rhythm for the first time since July 2013. Excited much?! I was smiling from ear to ear for the rest of the day!

It’s been a huge challenge, a very long 9 months, and the biggest mountain I’ve had to climb in my post-ED life. But I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Today I entered two 5km fun runs, and an Olympic Distance Triathlon which I will do as a team (as my surgeon is not giving me the green light to run 10km at race pace just yet!).

Still a long road to another Ironman finish line but every day is a step forwards

Still a long road to another Ironman finish line but every day is a step forwards

So what have I learned along the way? Patience. Something I never had a lot of before. I’ve learned how to apply my discipline to my rehab like nobody’s business. That applied effort has allowed me to return to running 2 months ahead of the schedule my surgeon set out for me post-op. In fact, when my psychologist was warning me about the danger zone I am currently in (given my raging exercise addiction, it was a fair concern!) – I reassured him “don’t worry. I am treating my rehab program just like I once did Ana – I am aiming to be the “perfect” patient, which includes following the program to a tee, eating every nutritious food I can get my hands on, and doing every recovery strategy that is validated in the research – compression, ice, physio, you name it.” I’m not sure he 100% approved of my approach but was nonetheless impressed by my creativity and my insight into my personality characteristics (well, they weren’t going to go away just because my foot got cut in half and I couldn’t run for a while, let’s face it. May as well make use of them).

Full steam ahead: back on the bike and loving the training!

Full steam ahead: back on the bike and loving the training!

So, as my coach would tell me, it’s “onwards and upwards”. Every day is another opportunity to “practice perfection” – every stroke on the bike, arm turnover in the pool, step on the run, and weight in the gym, all tiny building blocks that will one day form the strongest Ironman body I’ve had yet. Every new day is another chance to be thankful for my health and my happiness. To breathe in the fresh air and feel alive.

I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in Karma. And I am grateful for the chance to rebuild my body and to live life to the fullest.

Happy training everyone!

K xoxo

Racing Weight

So yesterday I had a revelation. It’s only been, hhmmm, 18 years coming.

I was looking through some race results from a recent track meet and they had accompanying photos. One photo in particular really set me off – I felt a deep pang of ?yearning? to suddenly stop eating and to run a really long way. To look like that. ASAP.

I won't put the triggering photo up for obvious reasons.  Instead, here's a bunch of awesome, fit healthy chicks at the New Balance Games.

I won’t put the triggering photo up for obvious reasons. Instead, here’s a bunch of awesome, fit healthy chicks at the New Balance Games.

Ever since I started restricting calories at age 12, I have always been very easily triggered by certain people – for me, mainly athletes of the very lean, tanned, blonde and hot description. I most definitely have a “type”. For the longest time it was Anna Kournikova. I remember as a 12 year old looking up her height (same as mine – I was tall at 12. Incidentally, I never grew after that….amazing what starvation can do to the human skeleton) and weight. That was ground zero. Only, once I got to her weight, of course the ED/Ana was in full flight and I couldn’t stop there. I may have had the long blonde hair, the sports trophies, the tan….but I didn’t look like Anna Kournikova, because, well….she looks healthy. She glows. I had some grey death staring out my eyes to match the grey shades under them, and a bony back to boot.

Anna Kournikova in full flight.

Anna Kournikova in full flight.

Over the years the role models have evolved, and as I’ve talked about in previous posts, I now tend to look up to healthier athletes as a matter of requirement. I am simply too easily set off by the former. And of course a swap to a sport that suits my genetic make-up to a tee has helped as well: as a distance runner, being lean and super light was always an uphill battle, whereas I build the endurance and strength needed for long course triathlon almost by mistake, it happens so easily.

Anyway back to the point. To give you some context, my body at the moment is not at racing fitness and after being “Ironman fit” for the preceding 3 years straight, that’s a hard thing to get used to. I was as fit as I’ve ever been going into my foot surgery in July last year. But 3 months in a cast and non-weight bearing on crutches, when all I could do was core and upper body gym work and then after that, swimming….well for someone who builds muscle easily, I suddenly developed upper body muscles. Throw into the mix a couple of pregnancies then miscarriages in that period and well, needless to say, my body has changed. So I’m in the prime target zone of being affected by such triggers and constantly fighting the urge to overexercise and undereat, when in reality my body needs to be loved in every way in order to repair right now.

Only yesterday, for the first time ever, a shocking thing happened. I’m not even sure it was my brain producing the thought process, so foreign was that thought process. I suspect perhaps my psychologist or dietician found a way of tapping into my brain waves and altering them. For when I saw the picture, I yearned to starve and go run 35km. But then the next thought that followed was astounding: “yeah, if you want to be skinny-fat and unhealthy. If you want to get back to that level of fitness, you know what you need to do. You need to commit to training hard, and eating. A lot. Of really high quality food.” Sigh. Wait – whoah!! What just happened?!!!! Was that my head talking?

New, healthier role models: Caroline Steffen aka "Xena", 2nd fastest female Ironman athlete in the world.  Machine.

New, healthier role models: Caroline Steffen aka “Xena”, 2nd fastest female Ironman athlete in the world. Machine.

After deep consideration, I’m fairly certain it was me. I’m impressed. And when I analyse it, it’s true – the only times in my life I have been super race-fit, lean, healthy and glowing (and incidentally injury-free) have been when I’ve been able to train well and at a high intensity, and when I’ve been able to eat a lot of food to support that. For many of the other times, I may have been clocking in at my desired “racing weight” – for distance running, not triathlon – but I was far from glowing, and the fake tan and smiles were barely hiding a very frail skeleton with 10+ stress fractures in their short history.

As we all know a little too well, it’s far easier for us to undereat and overexercise. It’s comfy, predictable, safe, not scary. Eating like an athlete is frightening, uncomfortable, requires planning, and a lot of mental strength – and not just for a day, but for months. But when all is said and done, it’s always more rewarding doing something challenging than sticking to the same well-worn path. I don’t want to be a skinny-fat distance runner anymore; I will stand proud as an athlete. Glowing, too.

Bring it.

xoxo

My hand-made Easter chocolates for the family.  Happy Easter everyone! xoxo

My hand-made Easter chocolates for the family. Happy Easter everyone! xoxo

Our Body Responds to the Messages We Give It

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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.

SAY WHAAAAATT??!!

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.

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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?!).

Matching shoes and nails: check...

Matching shoes and nails: check…

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!
Happy training.

K xo

And Isn’t it Ironic: Anorexia and Ultraendurance Events

Once upon a time while in the middle of a large training block for an upcoming Ironman triathlon, I walked in on a conversation between my husband and our coach. They were having a competition about who had managed to get through their 5 hour ride on the least amount of nutrition – ie, they were competing about who was the better fat-burner, which is a huge factor for success in ultraendurance events like Ironman. Coach thought he was going to be awesome, because he’d had an eating disorder for about a year while running competitively at college (he is now recovered); my husband, on the other hand, had been specifically working on developing his fat-burning engine over the last few months – not an uncommon thing to do amongst Ironman athletes. Controversial? Absolutely. Effective? Most of the time. If you can get away with 20+ hours a week of training on not enough nutrition. Most athletes eventually crash and burn – through either injury or illness – prompting sports dieticians to admit that while these behaviours in high-level athletes can be effective at creating adaptations to fat-burning, they are also highly risky and are to be used sparingly and under the guidance of a qualified coach or dietician.

Husband: I just got through a 5 hour ride with 3 bottles of Gatorade, a banana and 2 Gu’s….beat that….

Coach: (laughs) well I got 3 hours in on nothing but water, then I hit the wall so bad – we had to stop and buy Coke and Mars bars to finish it off! I feel so wiped out now I can’t get off the couch haha.

Me: You two are such amateurs. I was doing the same ride, I wasn’t aware we were having a competition – I had 3 Gu’s for the whole ride and I wasn’t actually trying….and I feel fine now….seriously, you two should stick to short-course triathlon….

Moral of the story? If there has to be an upside to Anorexia, it has to be the amped-up development of the best fat-burning system on the planet. I mean, seriously – my body is out of control with this. It’s actually unfair to my competitors. So often during 3 hour long runs or 5 hour bike rides, I see my husband struggling with fatigue and hitting the wall and yet my engine just keeps on churning it out. I’ve lost count of how many times we have discussed a physical feat that should not be possible, according to the textbooks – and yet I’ve just done it. Case in point: at Busselton Ironman in 2012, I very stupidly accidentally consumed a drink with gluten in it right before the start. As a coeliac, that = disaster. I got about 2 hours in then started vomiting for the next few hours on and off, then came the stomach cramps and gastro. I got nothing but water and a bit of watermelon down during the race, and yet I still managed to finish. Two hours before my husband. In 35 degree heat. It should not be physically possible to exercise in those conditions on that little nutrition for 11+ hours, and yet – there I was, I’d done it. What an engine.

Marino Vanhoenacker passing by an aid station at Melbourne Ironman 2014

Marino Vanhoenacker passing by an aid station at Melbourne Ironman 2014

There isn’t much formal evidence of this phenomenon, but there is a hell of a lot of anecdotal evidence around. A quick look around at the top Ironman, marathon and ultramarathon professional athletes in the world reveals a huge proportion of previously eating-disorder-afflicted athletes. Some still have obvious ED’s. Even more would currently have well-hidden disordered eating patterns. And I’m not just talking about females, either. There are a pair of professional brothers who compete in Ironman and one of them has such a severe eating disorder that despite over 1 million dollars being laid on the line by their sponsor for the two of them to go head to head at Hawaii Ironman a few years back, the ill brother didn’t even make it to the starting line because his ED was so out of control that he was admitted as an inpatient, missing the race altogether.

Then there’s arguably the best female ultramarathoner we have seen to date, Pam Reed, who won Badwater outright two years in a row, beating all the men in the field:

“…And there was also an ironic twist to all of this. Anorexia had ruled my life for 15 years and had done a lot of damage in the process. One of its effects had been to condition my body to an amazing degree for ultrarunning. Something that had hurt me at one time in my life would now help me in another”
– from “The Extra Mile”, Pam Reed.

Need more evidence? Let’s look at the maths, and let’s stick to Ironman since that’s my thing. A typical 65kg athlete who completes the Ironman (3.8km swim/180km bike/42.2km run) in 12 hours will burn around 42000 kj doing so. That’s on top of the roughly 8000kj that same athlete needs just to stay alive that day – breathing, thinking, blinking etc. Think about that for a second: do you think it’s even possible to physically eat that much in a day? Let alone on a day you are exercising – hard – for 12 hours of it, shunting blood away from your digestive system? Well let me tell you, even if you have “Ironguts” like my husband (who is famous at our local pool for chowing down on a large flat white and bacon and egg muffin while getting into the pool to start his 4km swim set….), you cannot ingest that much energy. Not even close. If you’re lucky, you’ll have about 90 minutes worth of carbohydrate stored in your primed muscles, but after that, it’s predominantly the fat system that you’ll rely on. Most of the energy that you consume after that will be split between helping to prolong that fat-burning system, and importantly, to keep your brain happy. Recent research shows that while dieticians used to think we used the fuel from Gu’s and Gatorade to keep our muscles happy, it’s actually more to trick our brain into thinking we are still high on sugar and so it’s safe to continue exercising. Pretty cool stuff.

Unfortunately, Ana doesn't make you immune to blisters!

Unfortunately, Ana doesn’t make you immune to blisters!

So while I would never wish an eating disorder on anyone, I am happy for the gift that it has given me. Happy that something came from all the years of suffering (one must try to look on the bright side!). Before my very first Ironman a few years back, Coach and I were going through my nutrition plans for the day – Plan A, B, C, D….. because nothing ever goes to plan on race day and you must be flexible. His last words to me were “you will dominate this – you are so strong because of everything you’ve been through, when you get to the point where you have to “dig deep” you will absolutely thrive. And……don’t be afraid to start drinking coke early on the marathon!”. Well, he proved to be oh so right. I couldn’t stomach much during the bike leg, so was heading into the marathon feeling a bit flat. I started on coke and water straight away, and kept that up throughout. Sure enough, my brain was super happy with that! While everyone around me was collapsing like flies, I just kept getting stronger and stronger – the fat-burning kicked in and I was having a ball! Indeed, I got to the end and was disappointed that it wasn’t a bit harder.

I joked to Coach we might try the UltraMan next time (back-to-back Ironmans).

We’ll see what the future brings!

K xo

When all else fails, Bake.

Hormones rule the World…ok I get it, I GET IT!

It’s been a pretty stressful last few months, which largely stems from the fact that I am once again faced with the ever-challenging issue of learning to trust my body.

After having a miscarriage 4 months ago, my body has decided that it’s going to do its own thing, regardless of whatever I am choosing to do. Despite zero change in my food or exercise, I have been battling an influx of hormones presumably stemming from the miscarriage. My previously flat stomach is now decidedly curved and my breasts have gone from a small B cup to a large C cup. Initially I thought that this would level off over time, but it seems they are here to stay – at least for the time being.

Tiffany's-inspired Chocolate Cupcakes.  I dare you not to feel uplifted!

Tiffany’s-inspired Chocolate Cupcakes. I dare you not to feel uplifted!

It’s brought all those recovery memories flooding back. The overwhelming feeling that you are drowning in a sea of change and you don’t know when the wave is going to stop pummelling your body against the floor of the ocean. It’s also a bitter pill to swallow: that I would not only lose my baby, but that I would lose control over my body as well. My doctor reassures me that it’s a good thing, that my body is trying to set itself up to become pregnant again (which is what I want more than the world). My psychologist says that I should focus on the positives, like having amazing breasts – my husband has certainly had less trouble than me focussing on this one – and that this will not last forever. But for me, it’s all been downright confusing. Just when you think you truly know your body, know what it likes, know where its set point is, have come to accept a certain size as being healthy for your frame….it all gets thrown to the wayside. I can almost hear God laughing.

Once again it has reminded me that hormones do, in fact, control the world. Or at least our sleep, mood, emotions, fat deposition, curves, weight, fatigue and ultimately, fertility…. So what to do? The only thing I know how to do: make sure I am taking the best possible care of my body and mind and trust that it will settle into itself, wherever it is supposed to be. Which means, for me, cutting out caffeine and alcohol, eating A LOT of fruit, vegetables, good quality protein, nuts, seeds, good fats, and of course steering clear of gluten (I have Coeliac disease, as an aside, which does put me at a higher risk of miscarriage along with a history of Anorexia. Oh the joys.). It also means focussing on nourishing my body with activity that brings me joy and relaxation, namely running, dance, Pilates, group rides and swim sessions with my husband. Not because I have to do a set session or hit a predetermined interval; simply because my body can and it makes me happy. That is an important distinction. It means getting at least 8 hours of good quality sleep a night, and actively trying to relax during the day – deep breaths at work, 5 minutes of meditation when I get the chance, and laughing a lot. And of course, when all else fails, it means baking – the cheapest and best therapy of all.

Death by Chocolate: Chocolate Mousse Layer Cake with Chocolate Ganache

Death by Chocolate: Chocolate Mousse Layer Cake with Chocolate Ganache

I’m not sure that I will ever be able to accept that I cannot control what is happening with my body. Ultimately, your body will change at various stages during your life, and there is very little that you can do to stop that – short of being unhealthy and falling back into eating disorders patterns, or conversely, saying “stuff it” and allowing yourself to become significantly overweight, which is not healthy either. It is well established in the research that your body has a “set point” – a range of about 5 kg, that it will defend at all odds. So just like in recovery, when you have to trust that you won’t keep gaining and gaining indefinitely; I too have to now trust that if I nourish my body and treat it well it will do what it needs to do to create the optimal environment for baby-making and health. I can’t change what that shape ends up looking like on me, but I can change how I react to it. I am faced with a choice – to reject the change and stick to everything I have known up to this point, or to embrace that I do not have control of what is happening and to learn to love my body, no matter what form it presents in. After all, I am still the same person inside.

It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m pretty good at overcoming those.
Keep on keeping on fighting the Good Fight. This one is going to be tough.

“When doubt seeps in, you got two roads, you can take either road. You can go to the left or you can go to the right and believe me, they’ll tell you failure is not an option. That is ridiculous. Failure is always an option. Failure is the most readily available option at all times, but it’s a choice. You can choose to fail or you can choose to succeed.” – Chael Sonnen

K xoxo