Triathlon is not a diet

by JL Fields, Editor @ Stop Chasing Skinny on May 12, 2012

My husband is a multisport coach.  The other day he was putting the finishing touches on a presentation for a group of women who are new to the sport of triathlon and he ran a few of his key points by me.  He startled me when he said, “Triathlon is not a diet.” He went on to say that you can watch what you eat and you can, and should be, mindful of nutrition, but you need to fuel your body. Dieting and training hard at the same time is a sure-fire way to ensure poor performance, risk injury, and feel an overall sense of fatigue.

Triathlon is not a diet. 

For about six years I was a racing maniac. I ran two full-marathons (26.2 miles) the year I turned 40; I ran seventeen half-marathons (13.1 miles) in five years; I competed in eight or so triathlons and duathlons in six years.  I had convinced myself I was racing for the sport of it – the challenge of it.  Sure, that was part of it. But I was really training (you know, all the work you do before race day) to stay skinny.  When I finally understood that the reason I was able to maintain a size 2 / 4 and a 120-ish pound frame was because I was constantly training (and sometimes getting injured), I lost my zeal for racing. That was not the motivation I wanted to race.  I wanted to train (it’s the journey, not the destination, right?) to be healthy, to be fit, to clear my brain, to feel alive.

I stopped training.

This spring I slowly started moving again.  Slowly. I took long walks in the middle of the day.  I felt my legs get stronger and my head was clear when I resumed working in the afternoon.  I enjoyed easy morning rides on my road bike. I soaked in the rising sun and scenery and felt strong and alive.  My walks morphed into jogs and eventually I was running again – and enjoying it.  One morning I had such a solid run that I wondered how it might feel to transition directly to my bike for a second workout to see what my legs had in them.  The fact that it was cold and pouring rain didn’t stop me. The solid double-workout nudged me back to something I have always loved. Multisport workouts.

This summer I am training for a duathlon (run-bike-run), versus a triathlon.  The training required is more reasonable because I can roll out of the garage on my bike or lace up my shoes and run out the door and not worry about finding the time to drive to a pool or the Sound for a water workout.  My husband is helping me think through my training  to make sure I have solid workouts in which I can measure improvement over the next few months but we’re not doing anything too crazy, like targeting a better time than my last duathlon (when I placed first in my age group – that is so not going to happen).

My focus is on the training, not the actual race.

My focus is to avoid obsessing about my weight.

See, after just a week of solid training my clothes started to fit differently and I found myself on the scale.  I had lost a handful of pounds in a short amount of time. I was back on the scale the next day. And the next.  After a year of weighing myself  only once a month I was back on the scale daily.

Losing weight – watching numbers creep down on the scale – is seductive.  It can be addictive.  I found myself reverting to some unhealthy ways of thinking:

  • “If I just drink liquids until dinner I could drop another couple of pounds this week.”
  • “If I skipped starches or grains at dinner I could drop even more.”

I’m shocked by how quickly those feelings can return. I pushed back.  I fed my body and soul with healthy foods.  I enjoyed sweet potatoes with black beans for lunch and brown rice with my tofu and vegetables for dinner.  I refused to get on the scale the next morning.

Sure, I may naturally drop a few inches or pounds as result of increasing my exercise – that’s fine and a good thing if that’s how my body naturally responds to elevated physical fitness activities combined with a nonrestrictive, balanced diet that includes the five key foods I know are essential for my healthy vegan lifestyle: vegetables, fruit, beans/legumes, grains, and nuts and seeds. Or I may not drop any other pounds at all –  my husband reminded me that my weight could actually go up as I gain muscle.  Just one more reason to ignore a ridiculous number that does not measure my health and fitness.

Triathlon Duathlon is not a diet.

My racing challenge isn’t the training or crossing the finish line. I know I can do both.  The challenge is to avoid being seduced into chasing skinny again.

My challenge is to remember that I am happy.  Right now.

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  • Sarah E.

    JL, this is a very brave post and I am so inspired by your honesty. As a former varsity collegiate cross-country athlete, I can relate to feeling high on the results of heavy training, and how seductive that can be in terms of falling into negative patterns. You’re amazing, I love you, keep on impressing the world with your strength and wisdom!

    • JL

      Sarah, your comment means so much! I’m continually reminded that this is a process and I am happy to see I am not alone in these feelings!

  • Bronwyn Coyne

    Love this. Racing can be a fun and exhilarating challenge, it can be way to prove how strong and amazing you are (to yourself), but it is a double edged sword. Like you said seeing your body change, seeing numbers go down can make racing addicting… and suddenly instead of enjoying the race for the race you enjoy it because of what it did to your body. You have to race to maintain the new body you’ve got, and the enjoyment stops but you can’t stop because you don’t know who you are any more without it.

    • JL

      It really is a slippery slope, isn’t it?

  • Valerie

    Love this post. Thank you for being so candid about the slippery slope of “weight loss mindset”

    • JL

      Thank you, Valerie. I feel obligated to share the “bad” with the “good” because this isn’t easy and it isn’t over. Learning to love one’s body is a journey, for sure!

  • Beth

    JL, I think this is one of the best posts you have written. I am cheering for you all the in Western Mass. xo.

    • JL

      Beth, thank you! That means so much!

  • Pam S

    YES. Gosh, why is it so difficult! I just got into kickboxing, because it’s SO OMG FUN, but even the trainers sometimes say things about weight/calories, and that mindset starts creeping in again … especially when you see some fancy new muscles in the mirror :) I wish the dieting/thin culture didn’t creep so easily into the joy of sport.

    • JL

      It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? I guess more of us just need to talk about it and support one another on the health and fitness of it all.

  • Carrie

    Love this! I’m training for my first full marathon and I have to remind myself that my body needs fuel and I’m not doing this to lose weight. My weight has stayed steady so far, and I”m not expecting it to move much.

    • JL

      Wow, your first marathon! Yes, if you are content with your weight you will really want to make sure you add the extra calories you burn.

  • theveganlisa

    I’m really inspired by the way you stay focused on the joy your body can bring. I think it is far too easy for women to measure their value by numbers on a scale, the size on their skirt or even the time at the finish line. But as you’ve proven once again, your life is about so much more, it is about how you feel everyday when you wake up and how you impact those around you. Thank you, JL!

    • JL

      Lisa, thank you. I’m really trying to focus on joy, health and happiness but am reminded how easily it is to get sucked back into the other side of it all. Have to be honest with everyone!

  • Koren

    Great post and I can certainly relate. My husband did a sprint triathlon yesterday and there is no way I’m swimming in freezing cold water, but a duathlon sounds intriguing. Love your motto too “stop chasing skinny” — that is my real goal for 2012.

    • JL

      Hi Koren! Thank you for your comment! I think your 2012 is excellent – good luck!

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  • Malina Harmon

    When I first pulled this up, it was blank. Now that I can read it, lol, I have to say my experience is almost the opposite. Whenever I start running more regularly or train for an event, my weight invariably goes up. At least a few pounds :( I can only guess it’s my muscles holding on to some water? Or that when I’m not training, I’m losing that muscle mass slowly even though I’m maintaining the same weight or losing a pound or two. I’ve deciced not to stress and obsess on it, either. I note it, and then go about my day. It’s nice to be able to objectively see the number on the scale and not attach any feelings to it!!
    Glad to hear you are happily training again :)

    • JL

      Muscle is a good point – in the piece I wrote last week, about my husband talking to new triathletes about avoiding the “diet” and training trap, he is making a point to explain that for some folks, the will “gain weight” (meaning muscle and therefore weigh more) and that it is not indication of fitness. One more reminder to not obsess over an arbitrary number!

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