What I’ve learnt from being Injured (and it’s not what you think)

Mountain biking in New Zealand about 6 months post-op. Probably wishing I was mountain running instead, but not a bad option B….!

We rarely come away from life’s challenges having learnt nothing. How we propel in the aftermath of major setbacks can be the major shapeshifter in our lives, and indeed in who we become as people thereafter.

I am finally at the point where I’m fairly comfortably through the trauma of what we shall call the “Everest” of my injury history. If I were to sketch a visual of my colourful history, it would look like a scattered flow of 13 stress fractures, starting at age 12 in relatively non-important locations and then escalating into some more heavy terrain as my eating disorder and distance running career progressed, finally reaching the peak at doing an Ironman with a stress fracture in my foot at age 29 and subsequently ending up needing major reconstructive foot surgery and a total of over 12 months off running. I can confidently say that that will be my peak, as I have finally, definitively, learnt how to respect my body. Which brings me to the 2 (yes, only two, but they’re BIG ones) things that this last 18 months has taught me:

1) Respect your body – you only have one (Yep That Old Chestnut)

Love it or hate it, your body is the only one you’re going to get. Sure, a surgeon can plate and drill you back together, but ultimately the bones and healing capacity that you have is still dependent on just that one body; you don’t get a new one just because you treated the old one like a rental car.

During the worst of an eating disorder it’s near impossible to comprehend or love your body, such a minefield is your brain at the time. And certainly, it’s something that I have really struggled with well into recovery – which is going on over 5 years now. It’s funny how it sometimes takes something so huge as threatening my ability to run and race – the loves of my life – to really “get it”. I guess in the aftermath of your eating disorder, those early months and years are spent just trying to survive the new life that you’re supposed to embrace – the daily climb of having to face food and weight gain, doctors, dieticians, psychologists….it’s all so much to cope with at the time. It’s often only years later that you can look back with some perspective and truly see what your body went through, and indeed how blessed you are to now still be standing here. Able to run. Able to love, and laugh. Able to grow a baby from scratch. It’s truly remarkable, what the body can come back from.

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Eventually the trauma ends, the memories get softer and we get back into our routines….and then along comes a “choice point” in life. I had one of those a fortnight ago. After having a good few months of pain-free and enjoyable running, I started feeling an all-too-familiar pain in the butt….well, my right sacrum (tailbone) to be technical about it. I’ve had two stress fractures there in the past, so I know what it feels like. The fact that I’ve had two, indicates I failed to learn from the first one, as with most of my injuries up to this point. However this time was different: I was able to use my “logical” (Physio) brain, take a step back and assess the pros and cons of continuing to run on this. For the first time ever, I was able to take a week off running, knowing that it was the best thing for me because I want to be able to run not only after the baby arrives in a few months, but also when I’m 60, or 70 years old. And my poor sacrum has already been beaten up enough. So even though I hated having a week off running now, in the long term, it was the best thing for me. And sure enough – my efforts were rewarded: I was able to go back to my 5km run yesterday morning with minimal butt pain. Seems so trivial, but such a huge step for me – in all my years of life, I’ve never yet been able to not just keep “pushing through”. I am finally confident that going forwards with training and racing, I will be capable of making the right decisions, rather than living in fear of what I know I can do to myself. The thought of training and racing injury-free seriously excites me. I have a plan, devised together with my “moral compass” aka my husband, on how I will approach training and racing coming back from this surgery and after the baby arrives in March. I know I have posted some awesome results in the past being tired, injured and generally unbalanced, so I am itching to see what the future brings. Bring on the post-baby running and Ironmans!

Hamilton Island - hiking up that hill at 7 months pregnant was totally worth this view!

Hamilton Island – hiking up that hill at 7 months pregnant was totally worth this view!

2) Enjoy the mundane routine of life – it is truly a blessing.

This is the big one. The surprise I got out of going through this surgery and the months of healing and rehab after was how much we take for granted the routines of our lives. Never before have I appreciated so much the simple acts of being able to walk, sleep, work, drive, cook dinner, do the washing up, hang out clothes washing, water the garden, and not to mention walking my dogs in the sunshine – that’s like ecstasy! The “daily routines” that I used to think got in my way of being…well…busy/productive/important/useful, I now see with a completely different light. Being in plaster and unable to do much of anything independently gives you a fair amount of time to think about these matters. The thing is, what we fail to realise while we get tied up in our own “busy-ness” and in seeming important all the time, is that the majority of our lives are, in fact, made up of us doing the daily routines. They are life. And if we can truly learn to appreciate how blessed we are to be able to have the health and the homes to do those ‘chores’ every day, then the daily grind suddenly becomes more magical.

As a pleasant secondary offshoot to this, this new appreciation for the simple things in life has translated into being able to be still, and just be with “me”, for the first time in my life. A big factor in eating disorders is that inability to relax and enjoy the quieter moments in life – for so long, I was fearful of weekends or holidays, and always had to plan every moment. I’m still not great at it, but I am much, much better. And it’s just so lovely to be able to take a big sigh of relief and know that everything will be OK with the world if I am just still for a little while.

Every experience in life – good or bad – can be a blessing in disguise if we can learn from our experiences. Sometimes this takes time, so be forgiving and gentle on yourself, especially in those early stages of recovery. You are a champion just for embracing the fight of a lifetime and let me promise you, it will all be worth it in time. Life truly can be a beautiful thing.

K xoxo

Even looking at this photo is hard....early days post-op.  Never again!

Even looking at this photo is hard….early days post-op. Never again!

Sesamoid Update – 1 year on

oct c 2014

“At some point you need to stop making a comeback and start running towards who you are meant to be next” – Lauren Fleshman #womanup

Hoorah for beating the odds – once again!

Sesamoid fractures have a pretty serious reputation for not going well. There is little evidence-based research available for treating practitioners on best standard of care, and even when that has managed to be achieved, they tend to be slow to heal and long to recover from.

Being a Physiotherapist and knowing all of this information, I was shaking in my boots a little at what I was staring down the barrel of just over a year ago now. Compound that fear with the knowledge of what I had done to my foot (doing an Ironman on a stress fracture is not something I will ever do again…), along with my history of poor-ish bone density thanks to a decade of Anorexia, and I was pretty much crawling with my tail between my knees into that surgeon’s office and pleading with him to save my life. Ok, dramatic…but running IS my life, my first love, my sanity and makes my soul happy. So NOT running again was simply not an option.

I am happy to say that even with the odds seriously stacked against you, with a great medical team and some serious dedication to a long and conservative rehabilitation process one can come out the other side flying. Once I got to the point where surgery was the only option left – 8 months of conservative treatment already tried and failed – I had to make a choice. I had to put my big-girl panties on and suck up the situation; there was zero time for feeling sorry for myself and about 24 hours a day to dedicate to doing an awesome job of this rehab process. As discussed in previous posts this included everything from sleep to nutrition to Physio – and most importantly, a great medical team: a brilliant sports physician who understands my passion for running as well as my medical history; the best foot and ankle surgeon in Australia; and a sexy Physiotherapist (OK that was my husband so I may be biased….but it probably helped the treatment come along….!!).

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Which brings me to the now. My surgeon was clear and stern with me from the start that it would be a 9-month rehab process before running would even begin, and 12 months before my foot would be adapted to what we had done to it: bone grafting the sesamoid plus breaking, elevating and plating the 1st metatarsal (dorsiflexion osteotomy) to take load off the sesamoid underneath it. 8 weeks in plaster non-weight-bearing was followed by another 8 weeks partial weight-bearing in a boot; then a very gradual increase in walking and loading the area. When I was in plaster I was doing a lot of Pilates, strength work and all-importantly, resting and eating well. My arms got pretty buff at this point – crutches plus strength work= guns!! As soon as I was out of plaster I was into the pool. Initially not allowed to deep water run, but I was allowed to swim if I used a pull-bouy and didn’t push off the wall with my right foot. This made me feel about 100% more human just being back in the sun and in the water again, even if it was limited. Towards the end of that 8 weeks in the boot, I was able to start deep water running and freestlye swimming (kicking). Then came the fun part.

The “real” rehab began once I was walking more and out of the boot. My right calf muscle was over 3cm smaller than my left at this point…I had a lot of work to do. Not to mention adapting to my new biomechanics – the first time I stood on my right foot, I felt like I had a marble under my 2nd metatarsal! Now a lot more of my weight would go through that bone rather than the 1st metatarsal/sesamoid complex, and so I had to go slow to allow the bone to adapt – it’s common at this stage to get stress fractures in the 2nd metatarsal if rehab is too aggressive, due to the increased load. I was allowed to start cycling (using carbon-soled bike shoes so the toe doesn’t bend) at this stage.

Due to my job being so physical – Physios are pretty much on their feet for 8+ hours a day – it would be another month or two before I could introduce any extra walking outside of work, which was frustrating. This was (mentally) probably the hardest part – not being ‘disabled’ any more, but feeling like you’re not actually working towards running either. My patience paid off and once I was able to walk for exercise, things moved quickly – at 7 months post-op, I was walking 30mins every other day with minimal swelling and less than 2/10 pain (ie. Acceptable pain levels given the surgery I had)….which meant I was allowed to jump on an Alter G treadmill and start running, 2 months ahead of schedule!

My surgeon was very strict with the Alter G protocol to follow. I started with 50% body weight for 20mins at just 10km/hr. This felt easy as my fitness was pretty good by now from the swim/bike/deep water running routine; that was a key part of this stage going so well. Over the next month I built the AlterG sessions up to 40 mins at 70% body weight including intervals, allowing me to build some speed and rhythm in. I had the luxury of having my husband and Physio accompany me and give me feedback on biomechanics and technique – it was like getting used to running on someone else’s foot! It felt very strange. I will be forever grateful to my sports physician for making access to an Alter G so available to me; not everyone has the luxury or the joy of this.

At 8 months I was given the green light to start my road running return program, which was also very conservative…it started with 30 minutes walking with 8 x 1 minute run throughout. But I was the happiest person on the planet! I kept up the Alter G sessions for a few more weeks just for my sanity more than anything else – it was still a novelty and better than drugs being able to push myself again (from a cardiovascular perspective), plus the fitness boost it gave me was invaluable and transferred beautifully onto road running.

I was slowly building week by week and up to running 5-10km, 3-4 times a week when we got pregnant this time around….and so I have maintained that level of running over the last 5 months, and will continue to for as long as I can into the pregnancy (I’m now 5 months along and 4kg up). Ironically, the extra relaxin hormone boost from the pregnancy has allowed me to get my full flexibility back in the foot post-op and so running feels better than ever! This could have taken a year or more to achieve without relaxin. I can honestly say now that I don’t even think about my foot anymore – it feels “normal”, strong and functional.

Oct E

Of course, I am missing racing immensely – between the surgery and pregnancy, it’s been almost 2 years since I’ve raced an Ironman and I cannot wait to get back to it. I am hoping to do an Ironman about 10-12 months after the baby arrives; it would be nice to go back to Busselton where it all went down in the first place and get some unfinished business out of the way!

What I have learned about Sesamoid Stress/Fractures:

– Get a health care team on board that KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING. Search for someone who has experience with treating sesamoids; if your GP/Sports Doc/Physio/Podiatrist does not, then call around until you find a team that does. Don’t be afraid to ask upfront.
– Use an MRI for diagnosis and follow-up progress scans. XRays are not sensitive enough and bone scans are not specific enough. The cost is worth it to know what you are dealing with.
– You need to be aggressive – from day dot. These are typically not super painful injures (well nowhere near a femur or sacral stress fracture – of which I’ve had both – hence being able to finish an Ironman on it without realising), and so they can be deceiving. But you need to take them very seriously, as hard as this can be early on,
From the moment of diagnosis you should be in a boot; either partial-weight bearing or full weight-bearing if pain allows – needs to be <2/10 pain at all times.
– Use contrast bathing or ice/heat protocols – 20mins of each, 1-3 times a day, to flush swelling and increase blood nutrients to the area.
Give it TIME. Prepare to be in the boot for 8-16 weeks. Yikes! I know….but trust me, this option is much better than having to go through surgery. Sesamoids have poor blood flow and don’t heal well, but if you treat them like gold from the start you will give it your best shot at healing conservatively.
– Statistically, following the above protocol, 50% of sesamoids will heal and 50% will not (at 12-16 weeks). It depends where the break is, what the blood flow is like, and how well you rest it during this time.
– If you are a serious athlete, love your sport, or have a job that requires you to be on your feet, think about getting a referral to a very experienced foot surgeon early in the process. They typically take a couple of months to get into, and it doesn’t mean that you will have to have surgery – but if it’s a slow healing fracture, they will give you an all-important educated opinion on your time frames, options and prognosis. You can always cancel the appointment if you’re going well, but it’s hard to get an urgent appointment if and when you do need it so plan ahead!
– If you do need to go ahead with surgery, ask the surgeon how many sesamoid stress fractures they have treated and how they have gone. You want the most experienced surgeon with good long-term outcomes ie. Return to full sport pain-free.
Avoid removing the bone at all costs. Unless it is completely shattered, a good surgeon should be able to either bone graft, pin or shave off part of the bone to salvage it. A foot without one or both sesamoids is, biomechanically-speaking, a disaster zone for arthritis and injuries and is not very conducive with a future running career!
– Further, if you do need the surgery, plan it well and be prepared for a long haul. Be ready mentally and physically to put in the hard yards from a rehab perspective (exercises, pain and swelling management, and lots of rest…), but even more so be ready to be patient from a psychological perspective. There is no point going through major surgery only to rush it on the other side.
– Be rest assured that with a good surgeon, and an even better rehab protocol (think slow-and-steady), you CAN and WILL return to your old athletic self. It’s possible you may even come back stronger after all the time spent with rehab and core strength work, and in my case, biomechanically improved because he fixed the 1st metatarsal angle at the same time, decreasing my chances of getting the injury again.

Currently sesamoid injuries are highly misunderstood by the medical profession and usually by athletes as well, but over the next decade I believe there will be huge improvements in understanding and treatment from medical professionals. In the meantime, those of us who have walked this path beforehand can hopefully shed some light, advice and much-needed hope that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel!

Happy Training

K xoxo

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FUNCTION OVER FORM. ALWAYS.

You never quite realise how much you take your mental cues from the physical body – that is, until you try to recover from an eating disorder. Or get pregnant. That glimpse of flat abs, outline of a six-pack, the toned and lean legs, tanned and glowing skin from hours in the sunshine; these things you take for granted at the time, but are all a daily reminder that you are fit, healthy and an athlete. Recovered.

Being so recovered, I thought of myself as being “above” all of that. Above needing physical clues – indeed, I didn’t even realise how much I relied on them until they went away. You do all this work on the mind during recovery, establishing yourself as a whole person being so much more meaningful than a weight on the scales or a dress size. But what I didn’t realise is that in my successful quest for recovery, I had replaced many of the anorexic cues with athlete cues – arguably, much more healthy for me, but nonetheless a crutch of sorts for self-esteem and self-worth.

sept 14 bb

This was a deliberate strategy to a large extent on the behalf of both my psychologist and my dietician: as being particularly resistant to treatment after 10+ years of anorexia, it was eventually discovered that I work best when we replace the focus of weight with the focus of athletic performance. Function over form. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, a key component to the success of this strategy was in allowing me to continue with my athletic and University endeavours during this treatment process. My incentive was as simple as this: If I don’t fuel my body correctly, I cannot perform athletically to my potential nor academically. And for me, my self-esteem and self-worth became more hinged over time on my identity as an athlete and a smart, successful woman. I fuelled my body and mind and discovered, in doing so, that my potential was far greater than I had ever dreamed of. I found my niche in Ironman and my passion in physiotherapy and succeeded in recovery life. Together we created visions of where I wanted to be – career-wise and athletically – and honed in on what I required of my body and mind in order to achieve these goals. Ana did not fit in with those dreams. Fuelling my body for hard training sessions, recovering well for my mind to work, and achieving some sort of balance in the way of sleep and relaxation were all imperative to the puzzle working.

I realise this strategy may not work and indeed may not be necessary for some ED sufferers. It worked for me primarily because physiologically I was, while underweight, stable enough to be allowed to keep exercising, albeit at a reduced load to my previous program. I was also at a key age: old enough to be independent and choosing to be in recovery; but also still studying at University and therefore able to easily manipulate where I wished my career pathway to go from here. You could call it “lucky”; I prefer to think it was my time – I had been in several treatment programs at younger ages and none had worked. So successful was the strategy that even now, when I’m having particularly challenging Ana thoughts that last more than a few days, I am able to trace it back to either work or training not going well for me. Focus has gone away from the things I’m most passionate about and my go-to backup is Ana. It happens subconsciously, only now I am so much better at recognising it and addressing it. Function over form. Recalibrate your life, sort it out….there we go.

sept 14 ff

The reason all of this is on my mind is that with the last 8 weeks of hell (being pregnant with the worse morning sickness ever) – there has been little training, time in the sun, intake of nutritious food, all-important sleep; even work has gone largely out the window (it’s difficult to treat patients when spontaneously vomiting). You’re growing a baby – possibly the ultimate function! – but you are so sick that it’s hard to comprehend this, and it’s also such a new identity: baby-grower. Person-manufacturer. Mum. So, day by day the Ana thoughts creep back and to make matters worse, all those lovely physical cues you didn’t even know you loved so much start slipping away – the stomach and boobs rounded, the skin grey and pale, dark circles under the eyes, muscle tone going….

But alas the solution lies in the past. Let’s get the focus back to my newest function: growing an awesome human. And yes, let’s remember that the morning sickness does not last forever. It is not Ana returning, just a transient loss of all the things that make me, me. Now that I am starting to get back outdoors, get into work, swimming and running, baking, and eating wonderful food again, sure enough the happiness grows too day by day. It might take me a while to get used to this new addition to my identity (“baby-grower”), but in time, it will come. It took a long time to see myself as an athlete, I can’t expect to click my fingers and have this happen overnight.

sept 14 ee

Chin up, stay strong, and remember that those thoughts aren’t you…..you, my friend, are far more beautiful than that.

K xoxoxo

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

United Nations of Ana

“Be Careful what you wish for; it may just come true”.

Wining and dining in beautiful Queenstown....that wish came true!

Wining and dining in beautiful Queenstown….that wish came true!

I’ve noticed over the years, that when I really visualise and wish for something to happen, more often than not it has come about. As a student of science – two university science-based degrees, in fact – I do understand the absurdity of this statement. But on the flipside, as a Physiotherapist who largely works with athletes, I am also hesitant to brush off the power of the mind and the power of intention in making things happen. An advocate of “hippie medicine” I am not; but a believer in the human mind, very much so.

Just last week a colleague and I gave a presentation to a group of runners about the power of visualisation, in terms of goal setting and forming one’s identity. What athletes do really well, that “normal” people do not, is to clearly establish an image in their minds’ eye of what their goals are, what their body looks and functions like, and how they will perform on race day. They stick posters on their bedroom walls, photos in their wallets and cars, have firm self-affirmations and use frequent visualisation to enable them to see the future they want to create and to assist in their pursuit of excellence.

Let’s flip that equation. How often do you see someone who has been overweight and inactive for their entire adult life, go ahead and lose 20kg, along the way learning how to maintain that loss, only to turn around and put it back on? Often, the new lifestyle has been achieved, but the person has failed in their mind’s eye to identify this new person in the mirror, who is “healthy” weight and active. They don’t recognise themselves. So they go back to their place of comfort.

Sound familiar? Nowhere is this phenomenon more important than with ED patients trying to recover. We are the ultimate masters of visualisation and affirmation – Ana makes damn sure that the little birdy on our shoulder never shuts up, providing an incessant stream of buzz words and “motivations” to become the ultimate weight loss machine. Do we recognize ourselves when we get there? Hell yes, we have been dreaming day and night of reaching that mystical land and no person on the planet is going to take it away. Hello Ana!

Only that is not you. That is Ana you are seeing in the mirror. Somewhere in the process, Ana takes over and the real You becomes a mute little birdy on the other shoulder.

During the long and arduous process of recovery, it becomes so important to bring that birdy back to life, for if you cannot see You in the mirror along the road to health, the risk is that Ana will pull you back to the land of “comfort”.

Easy to say, hard to do. How does one find a new sense of self – particularly for someone like me, who lost that sense of self at around 12 and then had to try to find an adult identity at age 22? We use the same tools that we learnt so well during the Ana years. Flip that bitch on it’s head. When it comes to the power of the mind, no-one – elite athletes included – does it better than an Anorexia sufferer.

The first thing that I did was to find images of athletes who I thought were realistically about the same size frame as me (height and muscularity etc), and had beautiful, fit, lean, muscular and healthy bodies. The more they look like you (a healthy version of you….), the better. Then I wrote out quotes and powerful affirmations for me, as simple as “I am an athlete”, “I am strong”, “I am beautiful”. I needed to be healthy to finish my first Ironman, so I included photos of glowing Ironman finishers as well. I plastered these words and images all around my mirror and through my training diary, as a constant reminder of where I wanted to head. I was creating an image of my future life in my all-important mind’s eye. So that when I got there I would recognise the person staring back at me in the mirror. I knew what Ana looked like; I just had to work out what I looked like.

Over the next months and years, the photos and words got updated and I started to build “me”. And then a funny thing happened. I finished my first Ironman, and the finisher photos get sent out a few weeks later. I stuck one of them up on my wall, then took a step back.  It fit right in, amidst the photos I had put up there to visualise my future with.  I had to smile.

The magical glow of the Ironman Finish Shute - Cairns 2012

The magical glow of the Ironman Finish Shute – Cairns 2012

The transformation didn’t happen overnight, and I still don’t love what I see in the mirror. I still spend countless hours talking to my Psychologist about the division between what I see, and what others in my world see (I get very confused when people tell me I’m attractive, stunning, slim etc as I do not see any of those things – it’s a work in progress). But the most important thing is I do see me in the mirror. It’s familiar, and it’s a body that can achieve amazing things, and a mind that spends most of its days helping people with their health, and that is a beautiful thing.

I will never stop doing this process, as it has bode me well during my recovery years and so long as I am doing my life’s dance on this epic planet, I will never stop trying to achieve amazing things. In the future the images will change as my life evolves, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of my life unfolds.

Bring it on.

K xo

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.”

– Erma Bombeck