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Though I’ve never suffered from a diagnosed eating disorder, I am absolutely a flawed product of the diet culture that I was raised in. I’d be willing to bet that many of you reading this are too.
(This is going to be one of those vulnerable, “Heather shares too much” posts. But I’ve been doing that for over a decade already, so why stop now. There is a huge risk in spilling my guts about something that, for all intents and purposes, I should have a grip on. I am an educated fitness professional with a number of credentials. Fitness and nutrition go hand in hand…in theory. The reality is much of the fitness industry – so much that it would surprise you – is pretty messed up when it comes to actually applying “healthy” proper nutrition to ourselves. I am no exception. My hope is that in sharing this post, I can help others who are maybe going through the same struggles, as well as just be really transparent about my journey. So at the risk of ruining my credibility, here goes nothing.)
One of my earliest memories is of being at a wellness checkup at the pediatricians office. We were living in Connecticut at the time, so I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old. I remember the doctor telling my mom that I was a good, healthy weight, and I remember my mom commenting that I ate lots of fruits and vegetables. They both praised me.
I knew, even at that young age, that people didn’t like to be overweight, and would go to extremes to avoid it. I watched my mother and older sister taking turns working out on the stationary bicycle that resided in my sisters bedroom, Michael Jackson tapes blaring in the background for motivation. They sweat not for fitness and health goals, but for weight loss purposes.
I remember being told, from the time I was very young, that I was “lucky” to be naturally “skinny”. Friends, family, and strangers would say this to me. I remember seeing adults wistfully stare at “bad” foods, like decadent desserts or savory chips, and commenting that they wish they could have them, but they were dieting. I remember my best friend at the time, Jenny, getting scolded by her parents for eating “too much” because she, too, was overweight.
We were seven.
At that age, I absolutely thrived on praise and being the best at everything I did. From school to dance class, to Brownie scouts, and beyond, I always wanted to be the best. So when I heard “good, healthy weight” or “aren’t you lucky to be so tiny”, I immediately latched on to the idea that skinny – which I was – equaled good. And I was going to be the best.
That thought process carried on through my entire adolescence and into adulthood. Food was never about nutrition in my eyes, and I was never taught how to properly fuel. Rather, food was both a necessity, and a treat, and it was directly tied to appearances. The decadent, sinful, and junk foods were acceptable for those of us fortunate enough to be skinny. But once the jeans started getting a little tighter, you had to restrict, eat the bland foods that don’t bring you joy, sit in misery with the hunger pains.
Keep in mind: I realize how messed up that sounds. But that is the mindset I developed at a very young age.
Because I know my mother and sister read this blog, I want to absolutely stress that I DEFINITELY do not blame them – or anyone in my family – for any of this. They, too, have been victims of the diet culture and “skinny” obsessed society that has been inundating women for at least the last 50 years. I was born in the 80’s, when chemical laden, fat free diet food was considered healthy. I know my family wanted only what was best for me (still do), but the truth is, they didn’t know better either.
Hell, when it comes to nutrition, MOST people still don’t know any better.
I honestly don’t want to point fingers or blame anyone at all in this post. There are endless posts and research studies out there pinpointing how media and society have destroyed young female’s self esteem tied to body image issues. I’m sure in my case there was more to it.
In my mind, fitness and nutrition have always been separate animals. I pursue fitness – running and strength training and so much more – because I absolutely love it. It brings me life. I pursued a career in this field because it brings me joy to see others also fall in love with physical movement. Exercise, for me, has never been about physical appearances. It’s always been about feeling good, emotionally and physically.
Food, on the other hand, is a different story.
I’ve always stressed about my weight. I wouldn’t say it’s something that plagues or consumes me 24/7, but I’ve always been incredibly critical of my body. I’ve definitely suffered (and likely still do) from body image disorder, in that I constantly think, and feel, that I am much bigger than I am. While I’ve never had an eating disorder, by textbook classifications, and I’ve never suffered from amenorrhea or the female athlete triad, I’ve never had a healthy relationship with food. I’ve had my share of extreme restriction diets. I am an emotional eater to a fault. And though as a trained, educated, health and fitness professional, I know that “bigger” does not equate “bad” -and will shout that from the rooftops until the end of time regarding other people -for myself, I struggle to let a lifetime of “skinny = good” go.
And for the third time in this post, I’m going to say the following: I’m certain I’m not alone in these feelings.
So, let’s get to ultrarunning.
A huge component to ultramarathon racing and training, a topic that I’ve purposefully left mostly out of the conversation over here on this blog, is nutrition. Now that you’ve read my above rambling, maybe you are beginning to understand why I’ve omitted this piece of the puzzle.
The reality is, you cannot be successful in this sport, long term, without properly fueling your body for training, racing, AND recovery. And I’ve hit the end of the road of being able to fake it.
Four years ago I stumbled my way into ultrarunning. I got my ass absolutely kicked, and I fell head over heels in love with the sport. Unfortunately, the sport also played into my incredibly messed up view of nutrition. Again, even though as a trained professional, I KNEW BETTER, in my mind the world of ultramarathon was a legitimate excuse to go nuts with my diet… sort of.
I would validate anything and everything I could eat, with a long run. And ultramarathons require ridiculous long runs. I mean, a 25 miler on Saturday followed by 12 more miles on Sunday surely would cancel out the endless pizza, chips, and beer I would shovel into my face over the weekend. Hostess cupcakes (my favorite)? why not? I just climbed 2,500 stairs, I “earned” it.
I’m 100% certain I am not alone in this mindset.
Plus, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing an ultramarathon aid station, you’d know that they are usually chock full of junk food. Easily digestible simple sugars go down well when you’re 18 hours into a 24 hour race. It’s not “wrong” if everyone else is doing it…or something like that.
But on the other hand, there would always be a general number in my head, a set idea of how much I SHOULD eat. When I would start to feel uncomfortable in my skin, I’d track calories for a few days. I’d download MyFitnessPal and try to make sure I stayed under the arbitrary calorie number it would give me as a “very active” person. Of course, “very active” on MyFitnessPal means, perhaps, working in construction or being a nurse on your feet all day. It definitely didn’t mean teaching a spin or plyometrics class (because I had to pay the bills), strength training for 90 minutes (because strength training is important, especially for female athletes), climbing on the treadmill for an hour (because we don’t have any mountains), and then running 10+ miles a night (because that’s what the training plan called for). Which was exactly what I had been doing most days for the last year. I realize to some that may sound obsessive, and I guess in a way it is. But for me, my levels of activity were never about “burning calories” , they were always about training…or work.
Of course, the logical side of my brain knew that this sort of activity required a) adequate fueling and b) proper nutrition (not just junk). But the messed up part of my brain was always afraid of weight gain, and addicted to convenience foods (I am the laziest vegetarian you’ll ever meet. Morning Star created their product line with me in mind). And so, I would eat the junk, but just enough to stay in my preconceived “adequate” caloric range. From a thermogenic, “calories in, calories out” point of view, I was getting “enough”. From a nutritional content point of view, as in getting all of the micro and macronutrients my body needs to truly THRIVE…I was starving myself.
Now’s the part of the post where I remind you that I am a certified exercise physiologist. I’m supposed to tell you that nutrition is out of my scope of practice (and I always do). But I think that “out of my scope of practice” is a vast understatement. Hell, it’s out of the scope of practice of MOST fitness professionals, but that doesn’t stop the industry as a whole from promoting horrible examples of nutrition.
But that’s another soap box for another day.
Let’s dig deeper: the other day, Geoff and I had an awesome opportunity to participate in a research study at our local university. We headed to the exercise science lab to have our body composition read via Bod Pod (air displacement plethysmograph) reading, as well as our resting metabolic rate determined via metabolic cart.
My body fat percentage was right where I expected it to be: on the high end of healthy. Not ideal, but I chose to focus on the keyword: healthy. But what totally blew my mind was my resting metabolic rate was significantly higher than I anticipated (and higher than all equations estimated it to be). Immediately, everything about this last year, and how I’ve “fallen apart” started to make sense.
You see (as I’ve mentioned at least half a dozen times on this blog already), this past year my body gave up on me. I was constantly tired. My hormones have been out of whack. I’ve had random injuries. And my body composition has shifted – not for the better. I attributed it all to overtraining, which might indeed be part of the cause. I’m sure that there’s still lingering emotional stress due to the loss of my dad. But this resting metabolic rate test was a huge eye opener to something I’ve known deep down all along:
I’m not fueling my body properly. Not with enough food, and definitely not with the correct types of food. And this year has proven to me that I simply can’t keep training for this sport while half-assing my nutrition, and ignoring this massive elephant in the room.
And I freaking LOVE this sport.
As I grow older (old-er, 37 isn’t old) I find myself becoming slowly more accepting of this body, and proud of what it is able to do. I’m also starting to care more about my athletic goals than my physical appearance. Which is exactly why I’ve been able to calmly sit here over the summer, not running (or doing much cardio at all), putting on some mass while I let my body rest.
And so, I’ve now spent about 1,500+ words tiptoeing around the point of this blog post:
My goal for 2020 (and the rest of 2019) is not necessarily on any particular races (although, there are a few “A” races on the calendar). Nope.
My goal for the coming year is to finally give a shit about my nutrition.
It’s scary, I won’t lie. Not just the idea of admitting that I’m a huge failure when it comes to nutrition. But more so the thought of shifting my entire mindset surrounding food, a mindset that has been shaped over the course of the last 37 years. It is scary. Food is comfort. Food is familiarity. Food is joy. I’ve never been, and never will be able to be, one of the people who can view food solely as a source of “fuel”.
And the thing I am learning is that good foods can still bring you joy, comfort, and familiarity. But arguably more important is that it can simultaneously bring your body the fuel it needs. And a healthy, well fueled body that can be successful in the sport I love is more joyful than a body that registers a number on a scale or a size in the back of my pants that in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t hold any value at all.
It takes effort. And education. And a whole lot of self discipline, while simultaneously giving yourself a bit of grace. It takes healing and acceptance. All things I am currently working on.
Regarding the effort and education: I’m finally – FINALLY – making the effort to learn how to cook. It’s 2019, there are endless resources of amazingly delicious, ultrarunner friendly, vegan recipes out there that are surprisingly not that difficult to make.
I’m reading the book ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life to try and better understand this body of mine. (amazon affiliate link)
The discipline with grace and a whole lot of healing? That’s going to be a huge work in progress. I’ve got a lot – I mean, A LOT – of work to do. Both with creating better nutrition habits, and emotionally learning how to view my nutrition in a healthier light. I’m working on learning to focus on what my body can do, and not what it looks like. And in doing so, I hope to be able to give my body everything it needs
So anyway, that’s your big, scary, probably more than you needed to know update about me and my running. We are all an experiment of one, and this is part of my journey.