The Space Between

“When we ski the trees, the trick is to focus on the spaces between, not the trees themselves.  The lines we choose are defined by our fears and our confidences, and when these are out of balance, when our fears outnumber our confidences, we lose the ability to find the spaces between the trees.  We lose our rhythm.  This goes for life, too.

My wife has anorexia.  She’s struggled with this all her life, but recently – to keep the analogy rolling – she smacked into the trees.  She’s struggling to find the spaces between.  As her partner, I’ve struggled to keep her moving through the forest.  At times, I’ve guided her into trees too dense for her to navigate.  What appears to me as an open glade of old-growth aspen, to her is a tangled mess of icy deadfall.

But I must keep my partner from becoming lost completely.  I’m responsible for her safety, and she for mine.  I can point out the spaces, but I can’t expect her to ski them as I would.

Rhythm, when skiing the trees, is as important as finding the spaces between.  The two are interlinked; one cannot exist without the other.  At speed, it’s easy to decide which way to go, which space to pass by and which to pass through.  With each turn is another decision in a rhythm that repeats itself over and over again; turn after turn, flowing from space to space.  I struggle mightily to find good lines these days.  Skiing much too slowly to find any rhythm, I’m forced to stop short – to hunt for a new space in woods that only seem to grow more dense.

Skiing the trees, there are no guarantees, no timelines: only expectations.  It’s not certain; I only expect my partner and I will find our rhythm again, and we’ll flow from space to space as easily as we once did. Momentum is everything.  We’ll gain momentum, and though it doesn’t always lead to the spaces between, stopping leaves us no choice but to stare at the trees”.

  • James Foukes, Backcountry Magazine

 

 

 

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!

Pregnancy and Eating Disorders: Part 2

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Growing a human being from scratch is a unique experience. It becomes even more unique for those of us who have been through an eating disorder. No matter what stage of illness or recovery you are in, there are individual nutritional, physiological, and psychological challenges that you will experience that all the well-meaning ‘practical’ pregnancy books and blogs in the world will not be able to help you with, or that other pregnant women could ever understand.

Currently I’m 6 months into my pregnancy and have been living these mini-battles and celebrations like a rollercoaster ride that still has 4 months to go (because yes, pregnancy is actually 10 months or 40 weeks, not 9 months!) . As the weeks go on and my body changes, the challenges get bigger but so too do the rewards – feeling your little person doing kung-foo fighting in your belly is one of the coolest feelings on the planet, and something I’ve come to focus on when everything else is becoming overwhelming.

I am hoping that like all things in life, it will get easier with time and experience – I want to have 3 children in the long-term scheme of things so I have to find a way to cope with everything during pregnancy in order to be OK with going back into the battle field! Easily the hardest part from an ED perspective has been the nausea, vomiting and constant hunger, which I’ve discussed in previous posts. But wait – there’s more – oh so many more things that may blindside you along the way on this journey of life creation….

Keep calm and stress less...hiking in Milford Sound, NZ

Keep calm and stress less…hiking in Milford Sound, NZ

Getting “weighed in” at the doctor’s office

Everyone is different with their recovery but I know a lot of you do not know your weight once you start down the recovery journey, and I am the same. I have had to find out maybe 5 times over the years I’ve been in recovery (they weigh you in before and after an Ironman to check for dehydration post-race, and also before surgery for the anaesthetist ie before my foot surgery). It doesn’t get less traumatic with time and distance from Ana. I just think it’s one of those things that despite your newfound health, identity and logical reasoning, it just tips you over the edge every time. The good news is that most other things get exponentially easier with time – like eating out and getting dressed in the mornings, but in my experience that number on the scale seems to be like a ticking time bomb.

Which brings us to the Obstetricians office where I get weighed and my blood pressure checked each and every time I see her. I even get competitive about the blood pressure reading – because I know how low mine is when I’m “race-fit” and I love that sense of numbers reflecting my health. See – it’s an issue! So I had to do the hard strategy that you learn soon enough into your recovery – to ask not to know the weight as you take that monumental step onto the scales. Which feels ridiculous when you are a grown woman, and a health professional at that, and look to be a healthy weight. You instantly feel the judgement of the weigher cloud the room (imagined or otherwise) and then usually end up blurting out something about having an eating disorder in the past and then by that point you just want to shrink into the palm of your own hand and disappear.

But here’s the thing. As horrible as that moment seems to you, I guarantee you the doctor or nurse weighing you is not judging you like you think they are. They, of all people, understand eating disorders and even if they don’t, this moment is just one of thousands during their very busy day and they won’t think twice about it after you leave the room. And they will never turn around and tell you the weight despite your request; they are more professional than that.

You, on the other hand, need protection. So it’s a matter of having that conversation to not know the weight, or finding out and then winding up in a spiral of destruction for the next few days/weeks/months……Five minutes of awkwardness vs a month of self-criticism? I’ll take the five minutes, thanks. And THAT conversation does get a little easier, even if the weight thing never does.

Knowing how Much Weight to Gain….and not freaking out about it.

Here’s the thing. This becomes a two-pronged issue as soon as you get pregnant: The things you can control, and the things you can’t. A lot of us have come from a lifetime of rigid eating and exercise patterns, even through to recovery, and control is a big issue for us – indeed often the initial cause for triggering an eating disorder.

So firstly, the part you can control during pregnancy is what you eat, how you exercise, and your stress levels. None of these things will affect the actual growth of your baby much – babies develop even in horrific environments at times and most come out around the same weight and health status – however these factors do greatly affect you, and how you feel during pregnancy. Your health and happiness, shall we say. So work with your dietician or read up on optimal pregnancy nutrition and where you can, try to eat well and adequately so that you as well as your baby can thrive and hopefully enjoy the experience.

The part that you cannot control is how your body grows. Where you carry your belly (high/low/front/spread etc), how big your boobs get, how much morning sickness you get, how much weight you gain, and where you gain it. If you are eating well, exercising sensibly and keeping stress under control, the rest is up to your body. You will likely gain between 9-15kg and it won’t necessarily be in a nice steady increment – sometimes the baby (and you) will grow a lot in a month, other times not so much. This has been a challenge for me, sometimes it feels like I’m watching an alien take over my body. But it has helped extraordinarily knowing that hey, I am doing everything that is within my control to be healthy, so the rest is up to Mother Nature. It’s important to note also that very little of that total amount is fat gain – most of it is baby, water weight, placenta, breast tissue and the like. I have found it helpful to look up the average breakdown of weight gain with respect to these things to keep the feelings of “fatness” in perspective!

And a final word….don’t buy into all the online bullshit popping up with “All Belly Pregnancies” and the like which seem to promote gaining absolutely the minimal weight and getting back to pre-pregnancy weight within 2.5 seconds of giving birth. It’s unrealistic and a ticking time bomb for eating disorder sufferers….it’s best to just not go there!

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Coping with comments from the world at large and worse….people touching you

So apparently once you fall pregnant, everyone in the world becomes an expert in pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. They want you to know how knowledgeable they are, which they express by shoving it down your throat with a good dose of judgement on the size of your bump (and sometimes boobs and butt…) and possibly a feel of your belly. Yup, not joking. I will preface this with the fact that I have always hated people touching my stomach, even my husband doesn’t go there when I’m lean and fit and sporting a washboard down there. So to say that I feel self-conscious about the ever-growing beach ball in my mid-section, and people launching their hands at it when you least expect it is an understatement! And as for the birthing and breastfeeding horror stories, well everyone seems to have gone through World War III giving birth to their brood, wearing their drama like a badge of honour. Makes you wonder how humans did it for all those centuries without the intervention of medical specialists and fancy hospitals, right? Right….

We are just animals after all, and we must remember that pregnancy and childbirth are one of the most normal, natural things that females can go through. The baby knows what it’s doing; the body knows what it’s doing…..you and your overactive, impressionable brain are just along for the ride. And you can make that ride calm and magical, embracing what nature does best, or you can listen to the horror stories and spend 10 months stressing about what will or probably won’t go wrong during childbirth. The way I see it is that we are blessed to have the fancy hospitals and specialists available on the small chance that something does go wrong. But I’ll be happy to go through the experience knowing that my body knows what it’s doing, even if it’s new to my mind….and that it’s a great day if I don’t have to see my Obstetrician during the birth because it means that all is well (midwives, on the other hand – the more the merrier!).

As for the comments on size…the only consensus I have on this is that 100% of the time, the people telling me “gee you’re huge!” or my personal favourite “wow you’re really looking pregnant now” are not….well….pictures of health. They are the ones who are a little on the tubby side and clearly insecure about their own weight. My friends who I train with or who are healthy weight tell me how awesome I’m looking. It all comes down to the common denominator once pointed out to me by a very smart psychologist: people talk about themselves. So when someone is bitching about so-and-so’s choices in life or commenting on your weight, just smile and think to yourself “wow you must have an insecurity about that within yourself”. Think about it. It can be a very informative experience! And maybe next time you catch yourself about to say something judgemental about another….stop and think – is this my issue or theirs?

Much more to come on the intricacies of growing a baby within one’s post-ED body, but for now this baby-mumma needs to get to work.

Happy training,
K xo

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.

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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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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

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.

final Arpil 14

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