Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Discomfort Zone

A few weeks ago, I did another 5K.

I’ll give a quick recap: I stood at the start line with yet another 12 year old.  Drafted off of him for the first mile.  Hey, when you’re 5’2” you can actually draft off 12 year olds.  Knowing he would fade, I made a move in the second mile, dropped him and found myself leading the race.  The whole thing!  And then in the last 800 meters, a guy in a cotton sweatshirt and white socks pulled halfway up his ankles surged past me for the overall win. 

The end.

But this isn’t about the 5K.  Or what happened after it.  About that – the car battery died.  When Chris said “the car needs a jump,” Max started jumping in the backseat asking if that helped. 

It didn’t.

This is about the person standing behind me at the start line.  Jen and I talked about this on our most recent podcast.  Let me set the stage.  It was 48 degrees.  Sunny.  Warm for November in Chicago, if you will.  The person was wearing full tights, a windbreaker, full gloves, an iPod and an Ironman finisher hat.

It struck me that this person might represent a problem with many triathletes. Note that I don’t have problems with triathletes – I am a triathlete and I coach triathletes.  But tell me one triathlete out there who doesn’t want to be a faster runner.  A faster athlete.  Anyone?  We all want that.  And from what I’ve seen, very few get uncomfortable enough to get there.  Here’s why.

We habitually try to avoid what is uncomfortable.  In real life, we overdrink, overeat, withdraw or create emotional high drama to distract from the discomfort within ourselves.  In sports, the discomfort might be wind, cold temperatures, hills, heat, humidity or the chatter in our head.  We do all sorts of things to avoid facing those “discomforts.”  In other words, we don’t like to suffer.    

The truth is, most of us live very, very comfortable lives.  Too cold in the house?  Turn the heat up.  Too warm in the house?  Turn the AC down.  Too windy to bike outside?  Sit on the trainer.  It’s raining?  Run your treadmill.  Too much negative self-talk, chatter or doubt?  Turn up your playlist.

We have ample choices to avoid the uncomfortable.  And we’re not afraid to make them.

Yet the place where learning, breakthroughs, even ephiphanies occur is outside of your comfort zone.  That’s where the good stuff is.  

Inside of the comfort zone, you are focused on one thing: staying comfortable.  You’ll slow down, walk, heck you won’t even try so as to not risk getting uncomfortable.  I’ve played the game myself.  Hot, humid day on a long run – I’ll stop at the water fountain to refill bottles (but they’re already full).  I’ll stop on the way back to go bathroom (what, you can’t hold it?).  By the end of the run, the Garmin file doesn’t lie – I stopped a half dozen times.  Do I plan on doing that in racing?  Does the workout say “take 6 mini breaks to gather yourself, collect your thoughts & let your HR come down along the way.”

The last I checked, NO.

We think we want to be uncomfortable.  We think we are tough.  But I’m guilty of this too.  Take a look at your past week of training.  How many times did you make the more comfortable choice?  How many times did you settle for less? 

Most frustrating is when this happens in a race – did you ever cross the finish line feeling that you gave less than 100% of your best self?  You’re disappointed in yourself.  Because, ultimately, you choosing to shrink back from the challenge is your choice.  Entirely under your control.  But you can’t wait until race settings to make this happen – there’s too much pressure, anxiety, too much at stake.  The longer the race, the harder the race, the more tired you are, the less likely you will choose the uncomfortable.  It won’t happen – unless you practice it daily in training.

Without realizing it, we set up our training to be comfortable.  We ride out with the wind so we get a nice tailwind on the way back.  We put ourselves behind the biggest guy in the lane.  We run the last mile slightly downhill to be sure we finish fast!  All of these tricks are negotiations with ourselves.  On one hand, you’re doing the work.  On the other, you’re doing all of these little tricks and deals to make sure that you get a little bit of your way while the work is getting done.

But what happens on race day.  Does it go all your way?  Have you ever seen the race course reversed to ensure you get a tailwind on the way back?  Or the day it was 90 degrees, did they shorten the course?  Nowadays, you know that at times they do change the course which is even more frustrating.  We’re athletes.  We like a challenge.  Don’t make it easy for us.  We like what’s uncomfortable.

Or do we?

Back to the 5K.  Most people run a 5K in 20 to 30 minutes.  In the big picture of a 24 hour day, 20 to 30 minutes is, well, nothing.  And that’s why dressing like it’s winter on a 48 degree day when you’re only going to run 20 to 30 minutes is a problem.  It says I don’t want to risk feeling cold.  In other words, I don’t want to get uncomfortable.  Folks, if you feel “cold” during a 5K, you are not running hard enough!  Not only that, but you’re not focusing on the task at hand.  If you are truly focusing on executing the race, you will not notice the cold.  If you are noticing it, you haven’t faced those conditions often enough in training to learn how to ignore them and push past.  Above all, it’s race.  It shouldn’t feel warm and cozy.  It shouldn’t feel comfortable.

What about the iPod?  Another distraction from discomfort.  Without it, you have nothing but the chatter in your head. Learning to manage that chatter and race well despite of it is what good racing is all about. We do anything we can to not be left alone with the voices in our head.  We enlist training partners.  We watch tv.  We listen to music.  All of that distracts us from feeling or thinking.  A bike test with your favorite tunes pumping through your ears loudly is going to go much better than one where you’re staring at a brick wall.  Research has shown that music makes you go a little faster. 

But there’s no music on race day.

Don’t distract yourself from yourself.  Face yourself instead.  You must if you are going to reach your full athletic potential. You must become the master of managing yourself.  The voices in your head – the chatter, doubt, the noise – they always talk on race day.  The more you face them in training, the better you’ll be at managing them on race day.  I remember listening to Bobby McGee a few years ago where he was talking about a strategy for dealing with pain or discomfort.  He suggested athletes literally say in their head: well, hello, pain, I’ve been waiting for you.

When you feel pain and discomfort, were you waiting?  Were you waiting for that moment where it becomes real and raw, sitting right on that edge?  You know that edge where you’re about to do something scary, special or that surprises yourself – you can either step back from the ledge where you know you’ll find safety or take a running leap with eyes closed over the edge.  It’s that leap of faith.  Most of the time, we hear the voices, we feel the pain and we throw up the white flag- fine, you win, I’m calling it a day!  If you want to go faster, if you want that next level, you’ve got to manage the chatter and then take the leap of faith. 

Truth be told, you have to taking that leap between comfortable and uncomfortable.  You have to want to go over.  Close your eyes and dive head first over the edge. To me, that edge affirms that I’m alive and being challenged.  There’s no rush or feeling like it.  Like many of you, at times I’ve been scared to push past it.  This summer I worked very hard at pushing over that edge.  Trusting myself.  Welcoming the pain.  Risking failure. 

All worth it. 

So you take the leap of faith – what next?  You’ve gone somewhere you haven’t before.  You’re uncomfortable.  You’re expanding your comfort zone.  If you’re going to go there in racing, you’ve got to go there in training.  If you don’t run nonstop for an hour in training, how are you going to do it in racing?  If you don’t tell the voices to shut up because you’re too busy being awesome today, how are you going to do it on race day?  Race day those voices are going to talk loudly, they will be very persuasive.  They know you’re tired – and when you’re tired, your defenses are down.  You give in easily.  You’ve got to talk louder, in other words, give them a little shut up legs.

Don't make things easy for yourself.  Don’t avoid being uncomfortable.  Trust that after 20 to 30 minutes of running, if you do get cold, you’ll be so focused on the task at hand (running – HARD!) that the cold won’t even matter.  Trust that if the voice in your head is telling you this hurts, stop, slow down, you’ll be ready to say ZIP IT, I’m too busy racing!  And know that practicing all of this in training over and over again is how you do it on race day. 

By nature, sports performance, especially a breakthrough sports performance is difficult.  It will hurt.  It will be hard.  If you practice dealing with those discomforts in training, when you get to racing, that’s when you get to the point where you’re running on autopilot – you feel nothing because at that point you’ve learned to tune it all out, override it and what was formerly uncomfortable is now comfortably tolerated.  Note that I did not say comfortable.  It never stops hurting.  You just learn to ignore it a little better.  No magic involved – just making choices that allow you to get to that place.  Little by little, make those choices in your training. 

Looking to read more on getting out of your comfort zone?  Check out these two articles:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

TEDx Naperville

Last Friday, I attended the 2013 TEDx Naperville conference.

Chances are, you’re already familiar with TED.  TED is a non-profit organized devoted to ideas worth spreading.  Their popular TED Talks are all over You Tube showcasing what they call riveting talks by remarkable people; scientists, leaders, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs.  TEDx is designed to allow local communities to put on their own TED Talks and conferences.  Each year, Naperville organizes such an event.

I’ve watched TED Talks on You Tube many times.  In under 20 minutes, you hear a powerful message that often connects to and inspires you.  In the actual conference, these messages literally came alive in front of me.  It was intellectually moving – more so than reading an article or reading a book.  In our increasingly technological world, we are losing the power of the live message.  There is nothing more powerful than communication in real time happening right in front of you.

Each speaker, whether they were talking about quantum physics or the secret recipe for running a successful local pizza restaurant, each speaker had a message that resonated with me.  I was surprised that each talk (regardless of topic) held my interest.  The talks were built around universal concepts – success, challenge, opportunity, choices, citizenry – making them more likely to resonate because everyone understands these concepts.  We all know what it’s like to face adversity and overcome it.  We all know what it’s like to dream - whether we're dreaming about 3D printing or energy policy.

The first speaker was one of my favorites.  A local entrepreneur who designed a product that tracked movement and calories.  The product wasn’t the focus – it was the reason behind it.  Did you know that we make 226 food decisions daily?  That would be like someone, every 4 minutes of the time you spend awake, asking you if you’re hungry.  It is no wonder our willpower crumbles – that’s a lot of nagging!  He talked about how humans are hard-wired to see food and want it because our ancestors never knew when their next meal was coming.  Unfortunately, we haven’t lost that hard-wiring (yet) and we’re now faced with food everywhere.  We have created, what he called, an obesogenic environment.  Plus, we are more sedentary than ever because of how our jobs and environments are designed.  In his words, “sitting is the new smoking.”   

Then, he went on to discuss research his group did on what makes people more likely to succeed with weight loss.  Diets don’t work.  The average adult diets 3 times a year and fails 95 percent of the time.  Over time, this is a lot of failure!  So he looked at what actually works.  There were seven key lessons he shared:
  • Believe it can be done
  • Find a compelling reason why it needs to be done
  • Find ANY place to start
  • Make baby step changes
  • Practice self-forgiveness
  • Plan ahead
  • Combine devices (technology) with advices (social media, friends, accountability)
Funny how most of those can be true for success with any type of big change or goal!

A leader from a local children’s museum - who headed up a project to take children into the woods for a week (without technology!) to “tinker” and learn more about themselves - shared, in poetic verse, what he does.  It was artistically beautiful and poignant but I’ll sum it up with this simple quote:

You’re never too old or too young to be awestruck.

Maria Montessori said, “play is a child’s work.”  That passion for curiosity, wonder and endless why in questions.  Successful adults learn to feed that passion and infuse it into what they do every day.  

Next up, an entrepreneur.  Telling us what it means to be an entrepreneur.  Most of us have an innate entrepreneurial spirit.  Does this describe you?  Need to achieve, optimistic, non-conforming, persistent, future-focused, passionate, generating ideas, action-oriented, leadership.  Our task is to create a life and workplaces where that spirit is respected and encouraged to thrive.  And to thrive, it must be acceptable to fail.  The entrepreneurial spirit is based on the idea of innovating and taking risks.  Failure is part of the process of thinking outside of the box and dreaming big. 

Have you heard of Emerson Spatz?  The youngest presenter with a whirlwind of ideas that he presented with rapid speech and enthusiasm.  Someone who took his offbeat intelligence and turned it into something huge.  He’s the guy who at age 12 started a website for Harry Potter fans that exploded into a best-selling book, countless other websites and an unbelievable net worth.  He’s got ideas – lots of them – but explained:

Ideas are easy.  The hard part is actually executing your ideas.

He’s spent the past few years studying how things become viral and shared his “secrets” on how to spread messages far and wide.  I’ll share my favorite one, it’s short and to the point:

To be viral, be awesome.    

Simple but true!

A local pizza restaurant owner gave a heartfelt and honest presentation on what it means to run a business.  He built his business on trust – something important when your primary employee is a teenager responsible for carrying out your family’s recipe for pizza!  He borrowed ideas from a great book, Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, in which Sinek encourages business owners not to explain what they do but why they do it.  This comes from defining your purpose.  While missions and visions are eloquent ideas of what you want to be in the future, a “purpose” states why you’re doing what you’re doing in the present.  Your values, then, state how you do what you do.  But first – start with why!

In between there were many other presenters.  Even on those I didn’t expect to be interested in, it was hard to lose attention when the talk was delivered so captivatingly and in under 20 minutes!  I actually sat through a mini-lesson on quantum physics and the latest research at Fermilab.  I learned about the current risks and threats in cyber-security.  And, the best part, was how the afternoon ended.  With a presentation from the owner of the local brewery that we frequent.

Solemn Oath Brewery was not built by a guy who knows beer.  It was built by a guy who knows business.  How did he do it?  In his words, “I dove in, I read everything I could get my hands on.”  He then hired the right people.  Of all 16 employees who work with him, only one has a background in beer – and that’s his brewer.  The rest were just good people with imagination, creativity, quality, consistency, passion.  In exchange, he gives them freedom, creative control and opportunity.  In his words, “choose your people right.”  

In building his business, he sought out advice from breweries all across the country – who answered his questions and even sent their business plans.  He talked about how this process led to the creative sparks of exchanges, resources and ideas.  He reinforced the benefit of sharing, even with your competition.  In fact, he said, “I need my competition to have the next big thing.  I need the challenge.”   Lastly, he talked about how craft beer is making a huge resurgence because it’s about building a culture, sharing customers and telling a story. 

After 4 presentations, we had 45-minute breaks to mingle, snack and network.  And after the last presentation, there was a catered dinner reception complete with Solemn Oath beer.  I’ll tell you – it was the best 50 bucks I’ve spent in a long time.

I walked away from the conference inspired.  Not to make major change or save the world but to bring a better perspective to my every day.  I was refreshed.   As we get older or more expert in our field, our tendency is to stagnate – to stop exploring, to stop wondering, to stop learning, to stop playing.  This conference felt like play for my brain and reminded me that I need to do more things like it.

If TEDx rolls through your local community, I highly suggest you attend!  And if you can’t attend, visit You Tube or for some of their great videos.  Here are two of my favorites:

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Fall is for 5Ks

Now that we’re into November, it’s time to make the most of the remaining 40+ degree days before we settle under what will be a thick blanket of snow, slush and ice.  Any day now.  As much as I can, I’m running and riding outside.  I’ve been enjoying some leisurely mountain bike rides with friends and some easy runs on the path.

It’s also the perfect time of the year, too, to do a little racing.  Finally, the time of the year where the temperature is right for running fast.   Fast, at this point, is all relative since I haven’t done much of anything structured or specific since early September.  I’ve done just enough “exercising” to keep my jeans fitting and keep me from embarrassing myself should I jump into a race.

While some people head straight to the cyclocross scene, I head to the local running races.  What this all means is that I’m giving you a 5K race report.  Ridiculous, isn’t it?  Fear not, I won’t dispense this in 5 parts.  Though if I did, it would look like this:

PreRace Part I, Chapter 3, Lines 8 – 12:

The day before the race, Jennifer Harrison came over to do some podcasting.  She brought me an opened box of chocolate covered coconut bon-bons.  She tells me they’re delicious, point proven as she had already eaten all but 5 in the box.  She wasn’t sure if I would be eating chocolate the day before a 5K.  I assured her that because it is November and I haven’t run under an 8 minute mile in months, that’s even MORE the reason to eat chocolate the day before a race.  Somehow I mustered up the personal strength to eat all 5 bon-bons before she pulled out of the driveway.

That about sums up my pre-race experience. 

I decided to do a race about 5 minutes from my house.  I’ve done the course before and know it’s not exactly a fast course – and when you’re feeling slow, doing a slow course gives you all sorts of excuses to explain away how slowly you ran.  Every sports psychologist knows that excuses make you feel better about yourself - especially after you’ve spent the last 8 weeks chocolate-loading. 

A lot like carbo-loading except tastes a ton better.

I actually talked one of my athletes into doing the race.  Note to any coached athlete: it’s best not to tell your coach I don’t like _______ because it immediately gives us coaches the brilliant idea that you need to do more ________.  When Jen A. told me she didn’t like racing 5ks, I said perfect, you can come out to the ‘burbs and race a 5K with me this weekend. 

You should see what I do when people tell me they hate swimming.   It involves a snorkel, a band and many, many press ups.

I met her there in the morning, spent some time chatting until it was time to warm up.  It was a brisk morning in the upper 30s but after 20 minutes I was warmed up and ready to go.  At the start line, I saw Deb.  I know she’s a good runner herself (at 46 she is still winning 5Ks, what an inspiration!) but she warned me that the young girl in front of me was fast.  I’ve been here before – at the front of the line surrounded by people (FINALLY) of my size but about 30 years younger than my age.  And sometimes these kids are fast. 

What this means is that I’ve been beaten by MANY of them. 

The gun went off and right on cue the young girl took off.  My plan was – well, it was a 5K so I didn’t have too much of a plan other than to ease into the race for about…30 seconds.  I kept my eye on her form and breathing and realized that within 800 meters I was reeling her in until I made the pass.  I finished up the next half mile, strong, to complete the pass.

We hit mile one at a pace a few minutes quicker than I’ve been running since – oh, mid-AUGUST - and sure enough, I took a quick glance as we turned a corner and there was no one behind me.  Right on cue, the cost of dropping a fast mile after weeks of running easy came to me in the form of a churning stomach.  Ouch!  I eased up to a pace I knew I could sustain while also thinking about that uphill last mile.  Honestly it had been so long since I felt “pain” in a workout, I got a little scared and backed off! 

It also didn’t help that the lead biker “escorting” me was practically spinning his pedals backwards. 

OH COME ON!  I’m not going THAT slow!

The next mile was about 20 seconds slower (ow) and the next mile was a little slower than that (BIG OW) but I did what was necessary to hold on to first place, get a little interview for a local paper and a gift card.   My time wasn’t fast for me.  But surprisingly  after weeks of the nontraining training plan and chocolate loading, I ran the same exact time I did in a race in March when I was much fitter, lighter and actually "training."

Exercise physiologists can riddle me that mystery.  

A few minutes later, Jen crossed the line with a new 5K PR and an age group win.  THATTA GIRL! Not bad for someone who doesn’t like 5Ks!

The next day, when my mom saw the picture in the paper she said it looks like you’re crying and then Chris, from over her shoulder said, you should always wear sunglasses when you race so people don’t see you like that.  A few days later, my father-in-law texted me: I have a picture of you here and it looks like you’re in a lot of pain.

My biggest fans, everybody.

Now I’ll wrap up my 5K race report with a mile by mile comparison of elevation gain, wind speed, stride rate and - nevermind, I’ll just say that after the race I headed straight to Starbucks and for an uncharacteristically indulgent coffee froo-froo drink: I ordered a gingerbread latte. 

Best recovery food ever.

(and it almost cost me as much as the race entry fee)

Now completely switching gears from little to big ring: I just finished the book Resilience by Michael Neenan (H. Wurtele referenced this book in her Kona race report and sparked my interest).  So what is resilience?  Resilience doesn’t have to just be about bouncing back from major catastrophe.  In the author’s words, resilience is being a flexible thinker (rather than having a fixed viewpoint) allowing for adaptation to challenging and changing circumstances.  

If you’re going to be a successful athlete (or parent or business person), you have to be resilient.  Racing (and training) is challenging and always changing.  Being able to adapt to if not just tolerate those conditions is a necessary factor for success.  In fact, racing is really just an exercise in tolerance – how long can you tolerate the pain, adverse conditions, voices in your head.  Not surprisingly, Neenan talks about high frustration tolerance being a necessary component of resilience.

What is high frustration tolerance?  
  • An ability to endure in times of distress without continually complaining about how difficult the struggle is or falling into self-pity every time a new setback is encountered. 
  • Discomfort is expected and embraced in order to suffer less in the future.
  • Seeking to develop resilience by getting out of your comfort zone; accepting that change is painful and difficult.
  • Understanding that achieving a goal is far less important than what the struggle to achieve it has revealed about you in uncovering strengths you didn’t think you had or seeing yourself in new and sometimes surprising ways.
  • Looking for the fun and joy of challenges and difficult things that are in your best interest. 
Right now is a good time to spend time building your frustration tolerance.  It will make you a better racer.  Especially in a world where we have so many choices to make things easier so we can avoid frustration.  Too windy out?  Ride your trainer.  Too cold?  Run on the treadmill.  Interval too tight?  Pull it.  Trust me, I’m guilty of all of that and it requires a lot of self-discipline, honesty and even sternness to get myself to not make the easy choice but make the right choice for what I want to achieve. 

On race day, when it’s windy, they won’t take the race inside.  You’ve got to learn to deal with things you don’t like or things that make you uncomfortable.  You’ve got to build your frustration tolerance.  Right now each of us has an idea of how to build a better ability to tolerate things we don’t like or things that aren’t easy or things that make us uncomfortable.  You hate running 5Ks?  Go run a few this fall.  You hate taking time off?  You probably should take a few days of rest.  You are scared of going to masters?  Go, and ask the coach for help with your fly (!).

Do the things that challenge your current comfort zone, do the things that scare you and make you feel very (physically and psychologically) uncomfortable.  In fact, do the thing that you tend to avoid doing (whether at home, work or in sports) and learn to manage the frustration you feel with yourself and the task - because that’s where learning takes place.

And so, yes, Jen is doing another 5K in a few weeks.  In fact, she asked for it!  To get to a new place, you’ve first got to open yourself up to the possibility, be brave enough to go there and then more often than not – you like what you're learning about yourself!

As for myself, I’m racing another 5K this weekend.  Why?  Because I really don’t like racing 5Ks.  I don’t like the burning in my stomach, I don’t like that I tend to settle for an easier pace because it feels better, I don’t like that I get scared of blowing up, I don’t like when someone is breathing hard on my left shoulder but I know I can’t back down.  All of that frustrates me until I cross the finish line and think to myself I NEVER WANT TO DO THAT AGAIN!  All of that is FRUSTRATING!

Which is exactly why I’m doing it.  

But this time, I’m definitely wearing sunglasses!

Monday, November 04, 2013

New Rules of Eating

Well, it’s that time of year again.

Time to clear your refrigerator out of anything with gluten, meat, sugar and buy yourself a Vitamix.  That’s right folks, we’re cleansing.  Or detoxing.  Or going gluten-free.  We’re paleo.  Wheat grass shots all around.  We’re eating clean!  Making everything from scratch.  Taking on a new challenge.  Denouncing wheat.  We’re doing all of that. 

No, really.

In between: cleaning our house, going to work, taking care of our kids, feeding our kids/spouses/dogs, catching up on the latest shows, planning for the holidays, taking a shower, sleeping, oh and – training.  By the way, we’re also going to cardio pump, hot yoga and CrossFit. 

In our “free”time.

In fact, most of us know what we’re doing but have no idea why.  We have no idea why the person blogging about making their own sports nutrition does that.  Maybe they don’t know either?  We have no idea why people go to Cross Fit.  We just know that a lot of people do it and look really ripped.  I’m not against any one of those things.  But I am against going against common sense.  At this time of year, you don’t need to juice your meals, eat only fruit before noon or meditate. 

You just need to exercise a little common sense, people.

Common sense says that all of those things that you’re thinking about doing that take extra equipment, supplies, restriction or create awkward social situations – those things are complicated.  I’m not suggesting you avoid what’s complicated in life.  Many worthwhile things are – marriage, children, updating your iPhone.  However, I am suggesting you surround yourself with things, ways of life and behaviors that are simple. 

Everyone wants the secret.  What’s the trick!  Ready for it?  What is simple is sustainable.  Read it again.  There it is!  Simple.  Sustainable.  And what is sustainable works.  Why?  Because you’re able to do it over and over again.  Consistency.  Just as consistency is the most effective approach to training – it also is for your diet or your way of living.  If you can repeat it day after day after day you’ll see results.  If not, it’s complicated. 

Food is a hot button for everyone.  If only we were 5 pounds thinner we’d be prettier, faster, more popular and we’d like ourselves more.  If only.  Chances are we’re not for myriad reasons – we’re getting older, we’re busy, we’re stressed, we’re not built that way or we’re inconsistent.  Simple as that.  Not because you’re eating wheat or drinking a glass of wine or fueling through your sessions.  Come on, do you really think that Power Gel you took while biking is the one thing you need to remove from your diet to drop a few pounds?

110 calories!?!

Admit it, you’ve thought that way before.  It’s true, we all have.  Myself:  GUILTY.  In bold.  If you’re struggling with it right now, congratulations, you’re totally normal.  I have met very few women who do not struggle with some level of disorder in their eating.  Myself included!  Doesn’t necessarily mean you have an eating disorder.  It just means that many of us have a complicated relationship with food.  Considering we need food to survive, this tends to make our daily survival, at times, difficult.

Why isn’t eating easy?  There’s misinformation, media, self-esteem, culture, men, our own mothers – shall I go on to list all of the reasons we are so messed up with our eating?  There are so many mixed messages.  Remember when eggs were bad?  Or when margarine was better than butter?  For every study out there supporting something, there’s another refuting it.  At times we strayed far away from common sense.  And when someone prescribes us common sense, ie., move more, eat less, we look at them skeptically and think: It can’t be that simple.

Simple, yes.  But not easy.    

This time of year many athletes are thinking about nutrition.  ‘Tis the time of the year to GET LEAN!  We’re looking for the magic formula, the way of eating, the super food that will get us there.  Because there’s GOT to be SOMEthing.


Let me tell you the secret.  It’s very simple.  I’ll give you 3 tips on how to lose weight, look better and feel good about yourself.  That’s right, I’m going full on infomercial style here:
  • Eat real food
  • Eat often
  • Eat everything in moderation

Eating real food means just that.  It’s fresh, wholesome, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lean meats.  It doesn’t come in a box.  If it does, that box has a list of – at most – 3 ingredients (that you can pronounce and recognize!).  It’s not dressed up with a lot of stuff.  It’s fresh and naked.

Eating often means just saying an emphatic NO to skipping meals or going more than 4 hours without eating (except bedtime of course).  It means actually eating!  You’ve got to feed the machine.   

Eating everything in moderation.  This is truth.  But most of us will put complicated rules of restriction into our diets.  And when it comes to following these restrictions, long-term, we are failures.  After coaching women for years and being a woman myself, let me tell you the one thing that is getting in the way of anything you’re trying to do – whether it’s get faster, lose weight, become leaner: it’s consistency.  The lack thereof.  From what I’ve seen and learned, personally, you need freakish amounts of consistency day after day, week after week, month after month to make ANY changes in body composition.  Unfortunately, for most of us, this is not often the case.

We cleanse, detox, in other words we starve.  We eat very little and what we do eat, let’s face it, we really don’t truly enjoy it.  We restrict ourselves from indulging, a little, in what we enjoy believing that there is no way possible we can indulge and still _____.  Fill in that blank – that blank is whatever you want – go faster, lose weight, look good in Lululemon pants.

Women restrict and over-restrict until at some point the stress of restricting, hunger stress, emotional stress, social stress, becomes so much that we give in – and then we overindulge.  I screwed up breakfast?  I might as well screw up second breakfast.  And lunch.  And dinner.  And that meal we have before bed that really screws up our sleep.  That one.

Maybe this lasts a day.  Sometimes we get in bad moods or streaks and it lasts a week until we put our foot down and say Monday or November 1st or the new moon I will begin again and this time I’m going vegan, dammit.  Because the scale hasn’t budged and that has GOT to be the answer.

No, actually it was your inconsistency.  That up and down pattern of restriction followed by over-indulgence.  Give it 6 to 8 weeks of day in, day out following the 3 rules above and then judge your body composition.  I suspect you’ll see a change. 

Simple but not easy.

If you’re struggling with body composition or weight, chances are you need to address what you’re doing during the season rather than what you do in the off season.  With a bit of moderate and common sense, you can enjoy yourself during the off season without swearing off baked goods.  You might gain a few pounds but that’s ok.  As long as you limit this gain (the 8% rule!), it should come off in due time when you return to your normal training load.

The problem is that many people do a really shitty job at eating during the season.  They overcompensate: I rode my bike for 5 hours and can eat anything I want!  No, you can’t.  Doesn’t work that way.  Especially since you likely replaced 50-75% of what you burned by way of sports drink and gels.  They underfuel: they miss fulfilling what they need during critical recovery windows – this creates stress (and to see what stress does, see below).  They don’t follow a consistent fueling plan during workouts: so they end up at the gas station 3 hours into a long ride on the brink of starvation shoving a Snickers and a Coke down.  That’s not performance food. 

And here’s another problem: endurance sports is NOT a great weight loss plan if you’re someone who is tethered to the number on the scale.  Case in point: when I started triathlon, I was nearly 10 pounds lighter than I am now.  Am I heavier?  Yes.  But the composition is totally different.  Sometimes the weight gain is muscle mass.  Sometimes it’s water retention.  But many athletes will wrongly attribute the weight gain to what they’re eating, so they restrict or starve themselves to achieve xxx numbers on the scale.  In doing so, they create excessive stress from improper eating on top of the stress of endurance training and the stress of daily life.  Stress begets more stress and more cortisol which in itself causes weight gain.

So what’s the answer?

First of all, relax.  Stop creating ridiculous rules for yourself that you can’t eat chocolate or have to give up cream in your coffee.  Unless you are 4 to 6 weeks away from your peak race, that is a great way to take away your will to survive.

Next, learn how to eat.  It’s shocking how many adult women simply do not know how to eat.  I didn’t know how to eat until I was about 30 years old.  True story.  It wasn’t until a nutritionist looked at my 3 day food log – which contained, oh, you know the typical performance food of Girl Scout Samoa Cookies, garbanzo beans (for protein of course!) and salad – that I learned what I was doing was not just wrong but working against everything I wanted: performance, well being, happiness.  From there, she taught me practical ways to fix my eating. 

Third, when the stakes are high (in season, close to your peak race), your focus should also be high.  When the stakes are low (off season, when you are possibly a year from your peak race and knee deep in the holidays), cut yourself some slack.  Having the right focus at the right time is the key to better body composition (and performance and success) over the long haul.   

Lastly, like I said in my previous post, be good to yourself.  Starving, restricting, creating difficult regimens that require a blender, a lot of time and doing something different than the rest of your family – well, that’s not fun for you, for them and it certainly doesn’t sound sustainable.  Being good also means learning to love and accept yourself.  There might be times you don’t like something about yourself but the overall trend should be acceptance and love.  You get one chance to go around this beautiful world.  Don’t waste it all on hating your intelligent, healthy and limitless self because you weigh xxx pounds or don’t look like so-and-so.

You’ve read this entire post and I didn’t give you one food group to swear off.  All I gave you was…a lot of common sense.  The more complex our lives become with technology, communication and information, the more we seem to forget what has stood the test of time: simplicity.  Don’t fall into the trap of overcomplicating something because we feel it MUST be complicated or else everyone would have it or be it or do it.  Remember, simple isn’t often easy to do.  Simple is not the same thing as settling.  Simple is simply the shortest distance between two points: a straight, logical, common sense line.  Don’t stray too far from the path in how you eat and what you eat and you’ll be on the path to success with your way of eating and how you look, too.  Above all, follow an approach you can follow day after day after day.  Take on only a level of complication that your life (and personality) can realistically handle!  Going paleo, vegan, sugar-free works for many people but it must work within the context of your life.

And whatever your approach to eating is, remember, 6 months of mostly good eating with a little cheating is better than 1 week of swearing off sugar only to eat an entire pumpkin pie in less than 24 hours.

I’ve seen this happen, folks, and it isn’t pretty!

(just ask my husband about his annual “pumpkin pie incident”)