Nutrition: The Fourth Discipline

The first thing people do when I tell them I'm a triathlete is (either silently or verbally) question my truthfulness. No one can believe that someone this heavy actually completes triathlons. And most people automatically assume that, because I'm heavy, I'm not disciplined. They figure, Well, you're fat. It's either because you eat too much or don't exercise enough - it's always a sign that you don't take care of yourself.

Well, this may come as a shock to you, but I'm actually going to agree with those bastards for once. I am not very disciplined.

Put stock in astrology? If so, I'm the poster child for my sign. According to astrology.com: "Sagittarius, the ninth Sign of the Zodiac, is the home of the wanderers of the Zodiac..........Once these folks start to feel hemmed in, they'll become impatient and difficult." Although most of us are natural athletes, Sagittarians despise boundaries, restraints, and regulations. We are free-wheeling optimists who fall prey easily to wanderlust, and we purportedly possess great passion and sponaneity, but little love for authority or commitment.

Not the greatest qualities in a triathlete, huh? I mean, think about it: training requires a commitment to hours of rigorous activity (under less than ideal conditions, on many occasions). It removes or relocates many other priorities in one's schedule. Only so much of it can be sacrificed, shuffled, or "winged" before a race becomes unsafe or impossible to finish. And it's not just training hours. Unlike, say, football or golf, a triathlete will lose monumental speed and ability by getting bulkier, which means efficient strength training and proper nutrition are a must. All of those factors amount to a relatively hefty commitment, even for athletes training at Olympic or Sprint distances. Commitment and discipline are really good friends. Free spirits are not really good friends with commitment and discipline.

So, every time I read Friel's chapter in Going Long called Nutrition: The Fourth Discipline, I cringe. Part of this is because I am the epitomy of a free spirit, and the very word "discipline" makes me quiver. Part of this is because I feel nervous when pressured in any way to focus on my eating habits - after all, I'm naturally geared toward food obsession. And, like most of us, my eating is also the first thing to go out the window when I feel ill, or my schedule gets packed, or I get stressed. In fact, one of the biggest reasons I train is because training is slowly helping me to develop a healthier relationship with food. The effects of poor or inappropriate nutrition are almost immediately evident in daily training, and especially during races - everything from the amounts and varieties we consume to the intervals at which we consume them. The key, for me, to improving my relationship with food (and its relationship to my training), is to understand and accept food as fuel for the proper functioning of my body, as opposed to a treat, an emotional outlet or a celebratory tool.

This has been a very long and difficult road for me to travel. I have always been the type of eater who eats great quantities but naturally chooses healthier foods, especially considering that my family was vegan while I was in high school and lacto-ovo vegetarian until I moved away from home. (Although, that's also one of the roots of my eating problem, but I digress.) Last year, I was close to my average weight (about 30 lbs lighter than I am now), and my habits were easy to maintain. Losing weight steadily, I was certain that training harder would return me to proper form, although - and this is VERY important to say - my reason for training was NEVER to lose weight. My hope was to be too light for the Athena category by St. Anthony's in April. However, from late summer through early spring, a series of flare-ups, medication changes, lifestyle changes and tendencies toward my old disordered eating patterns actually put me at a weight around 10 pounds heavier than I was at this time in 2007. You can imagine the anxiety this added to my already stressful life: medical problems, personal problems, training struggles - then add the weight gain and all the correlated self-esteem damage, the difficulty dressing for work and the simple fact that training was more physically painful. Of course - and I am NOT proud to admit this - the end result was the adoption of even poorer eating habits as the stressors pushed me farther and farther back.

It isn't for lack of knowledge. Being a disordered eater, I know more about nutrition than you can probably imagine. More than most people - even athletes - would like to know. My years of obsessing about food have educated me on carbs, fats, protein, veggies, grains, the best time to eat, and all manners of weight-maintenance habits including food-journaling, portioning, deprivation, non-deprivation, and just about every mental trick in the book(s). But putting all that knowledge into practice is nothing short of miraculous, especially when my eating is so intrinsically linked to my emotional well-being and other health concerns.

It really is a discipline.

And I am struggling with discipline right now. It's enough for me to just get out of bed, train a few times a week, work without falling alseep at my desk, and repeat the process the following week. Let alone to have to watch my nutrition and not feel offended by people looking at me like a freak because I barely fit an XL top but I'm talking about training for triathlons.


As I've said before, the week of the biggest race I've ever attempted is NOT the week to get crazy and alter my routine severely. Florida Ironman 70.3 is looming on the horizon. Maintaining the status quo is vital at this point. After FL HIM, I will go back to using Weight Watchers for a while as a food journaling tool to keep me on track. I visited Brian and company at FrontRunning Sports today and had my stride video taped. It's altered a lot since last year. A different pair of shoes is on order. My shorter summer races (local and Olympic - except for one, out-of-state Olympic) and my fall marathon will be the time for me start working on these things.

For now, I have to get ready for my parents and aunt to visit, and it's time to tapertapertapertapertaper . . . . .

Oh, and download "The Final Countdown" to my iPod.

2 tidbits of wizdom:

Alili said...

Good luck and HAVE FUN out there this weekend! You can do this!

Tea said...

CONGRATS MEggan! You did it! You did it!!!!


WOOO HOOOOO!!!

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