Swim. Bike. Run. You’ve got that on autopilot. You’re also in control of strength training and nutrition. What happens if the latter – eating – controls you? To find out, I’d like to introduce three topics related to fuelling and performance and explore heart-felt challenges triathletes face when it comes to eating disorders, body composition and exercise dependence.
Thought for food
The amazing thing about triathlon is the variety of people who participate showcasing a range of body sizes and physiques. Not everyone looks like, or has to look like, a “model” of excellence. What is universal is the tenuous balance between fuelling with food versus becoming beholden to it.
Triathletes may suffer from eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating disorder. These are medical conditions. On the border of these formal diagnoses sit a great range of idiosyncratic eating habits, some of which lead to marginal performance gains in the short term, while others highlight the dangerous side of the drive to excel that culminate in burnout.
Jodie Swallow is an excellent triathlon ambassador – talented, generous, and honest. She has talked about struggles with bulimia and continues to advocate for athletes to find a balance between physical and emotional health. She also stresses that athletes should be attentive to “extreme weight coercion,” either internally driven or externally encouraged. In Chrissie Wellington’s autobiography A Life Without Limits, she also explores similar pressures and how that intersected with her career. Three-time Ironman Hawaii winner Peter Reid opined in the triathlon documentary What It Takes that he had “somewhat of an eating disorder” and goes to bed hungry with headaches from food restriction as he prepared for the 2005 Ironman World Championship. These three professional athletes share an openness that is not often seen. There are many other triathletes whose voices have not yet been heard.
Disorganized eating behaviours are seen in both women and men and, while the prevalence rates differ, the awareness of your own eating habits and those of friends and family you care about can make positive changes. Healthy weight maintenance and regular eating routines, while frightening to those in the grip of an eating disorder, are attainable. Those who are striving for the ultimate triathlon performance won’t achieve their goals if they short change their energy needs.
A difficulty that impacts male athletes more than women is muscle dysmorphia – basically “reverse anorexia.” Instead of looking in the mirror and seeing a reflection that is larger than life, those who struggle with muscle dysmorphia see in the mirror a weak body when in reality they are ripped or even over-muscled. While there are less obvious examples of triathletes looking like body builders, you can see the concept on the cover of any sporting or men’s health magazine showcasing the uncommon chiselled physique. Many triathletes not only struggle with weight-to-power ratio, but also struggle to achieve muscular tone and lean muscle mass. The quest for this ideal leads to a change in nutrition strategy, taking in more protein and less carbohydrate, which invariably leads to race problems due to a lack of adequate fat stores and available glycogen. After all, you do need fat tissue to train and race-long distance events.
It’s a hard ask for athletes to stop eating what they think will get them to what they feel is a “correct” weight for competition. Helping accept yourself as you are does not mean you have to give up ambition to compete. If, however, you find you have become addicted to the gym at the cost of a balanced insight into how you see yourself in the mirror, it may be time to ask for help from your network.
What’s eating you?
Are you addicted to exercise? You may see it in yourself or your training partner – the fine line between excelling at triathlon and having it become your fix for all things. Does the sport provide your endorphin needs, has it become your psychological best friend, is it supplanting your work and personal life? Triathlon training can become an addiction. If you train to the point where you repeatedly injure yourself, you miss your child’s birthday to do one more brick workout, or you train at the expense of all else, you should think of making a change. After all, you still need your original joints when you are older, your child’s smile to brighten the day and the perspective that comes from the other aspects of your life.
Canadian pro Lionel Sanders has shared his story of having addiction challenges to illicit drugs before becoming a sporting inspiration. Cognizant that he shouldn’t swap his hyper-focus from drugs to sport, Sanders is aware that there can be an overdoing of training that puts you in a hole.
“I think the biggest thing that I had to acknowledge is that in order to push yourself to the absolute limit, you need balance in your life,” he says. “You can’t train hard all the time [as] this will burn you out physically and mentally. You need to recover, you need to have other interests so that when you do train hard you have mental and physical strength, motivation and desire.”
The way out of exercise dependence is often through experiencing the negative consequences of over-exercise and the generosity of others who can point it out. There actually is a zone where focus and motivation can lead to athletic achievements without leading to a crash in performance, scuttling of enjoyment, or loss of health. You can embrace exercise with moderation that still confers tremendous value.
You aren’t how you eat
As you prepare for the upcoming tri season, take a look in the mirror and see who it is that looks back. Being aware allows you to ask for help if you want it. There is joy in striving for excellence in how your body functions and looks. There is reward in setting a goal and accomplishing it. Real satisfaction can come from being consistent with activity and social engagement through training. The varied ages, backgrounds and body types of triathletes continues to be a boon to the positive diversity in our sport and the acknowledgment that fuelling with food remains not only a vital aspect of triathlon, but of overall wellness. Remember you aren’t how you eat and, while your eating or training patterns may relate in part to self-identity, you are far more important to yourself and others than what or how you fuel with food or rest.
Dr. Chris Willer is a psychiatrist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and an avid triathlete for the past 18 years. He is also a nine-time Ironman finisher, and has competed at the Marathon Des Sables, Newton 24 Hours of Triathlon and Ultraman Canada.