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The Stubborn Athlete’s Guide to Change

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By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor

Two weeks ago my farmers market co-worker, Max, made a terrible mistake. He made some off-hand comment about not eating breakfast. Max works in the fields on the farm all day, yet somehow, “I am not really hungry for lunch, either.” I noted, in no uncertain terms, that I thought this was all a very bad plan. “Yeah, but I don’t want to gain weight,” he replied.

Max’s biggest error was the timing of his admission. Our conversation started just as we were packing up. Without any customer to distract me, he became subject to a forty-five minute diatribe I seemed wholly unable to curtail – complete with both personal and scientific references.

I’ll give you the shortened version.

Excess caloric deprivation will not lead to weight loss. Past a certain point, it can lead to metabolic slowing at the very best. More insidious are the effects of relative energy deficiency in sport, or RED-S, that are currently being more widely studied. If you have never spent an entire day pulling drip tape out of a field, allow me to assure you that farming also carries a high energy cost (perhaps that would be RED-F). RED-S leads to immune system and endocrine disruption. Over the long term, it can result in loss of bone mass and osteoporosis. On a daily level, it causes poor sleep, irritability, poor performance and a reduced ability to recover. Skipping meals can also lead to poor nutritional choices later in the day, I explained to my hapless pupil.

When making change, start with what works for you

“Can I just have a protein bar?” asked Max, at least feigning interest as I paused for breath. Generally, I would consider a protein bar – or anything processed and packaged – to be a sub-par meal. I have a host of options for the early-morning, can’t-do complainers, including pre-making and freezing a batch of breakfast burritos, preparing and refrigerating smoothie ingredients in the blender at night for a buzz-and-go take off, or even making some whole-grain toast with nut butter and grabbing a piece of fruit. Pushing those wasn’t the point. If a protein bar worked for Max and it was something he would eat, then the bar was far better than a meal plan too daunting to be followed. Any calories would be a huge improvement, and I was happy to let my friend dictate his own comfort zone. When you are making changes in your life, it is absolutely okay to meet yourself where you are. Don’t allow a desire for perfection to muck up an opportunity for solid progress.

Listening even when you don’t want to hear

“Listen to your body,” is great advice, but as a person who has wrangled with an eating disorder in the past, I can assure you that when we disregard the signals our bodies send for too long, they get quieter and the lines of communication can get a bit crossed. Both habituation and willful ignorance are powerful tools we employ without realizing it. Our will can be particularly strong when the messages we receive aren’t the ones we expect or desire – whether they come from the pages of our daily paper or from our own guts.

It’s easy enough to listen when our bodies request a yoga class, a dinner with friends, a hard effort on a day when you are feeling bulletproof, or an extra hour of sleep in a warm bed. Unfortunately, it’s equally important to perk up our inner ears when we need to take a day off or skip a race, when we need to tone down the caffeine or the ice cream intake, or when we have to modify a goal we were set on.

Sometimes the actual messages we receive run so counter to what we have developed as our reality that they are downright confusing. It seems to require a full paradigm shift to play along. Have you ever finished a long ride or run completely exhausted, yet also nauseous and uninterested in any recovery meal? Have you then found your energy returns and your stomach settles once you force something down?

In the return from illness or injury, we tend to make our own timelines for when “normal” will return. It’s easy to assume it is our perceptions that are wrong when we don’t meet our own expectations, but really it may be our bodies asking for a rest, a shift, or a different stimulus. So, when challenged, be actually honest with yourself, trust those close to you, and listen to your coach. Shifting perception is not easy. Neither is bike racing. That’s why we practice.

Be willing to change your routine

The week after my chat with Max, I went on vacation with my brother. One of my strengths as an athlete was my ability to be goal oriented and regimented. The downsides to being uber-focused are an overactive reliance on habit and a resistance to experimentation. This was my first non-bike-industry vacation in about six years, and I was startled by how refreshing it was to eat at restaurants where I didn’t know the menu and to take on challenges – such as paddle-board surfing – that were physically strenuous but served no real goal or purpose.

I enjoyed, more than I might have expected, waking up in the morning genuinely thinking about what I wanted to eat and what I wanted to do. Vacation time is special, so each decision seemed to merit greater-than-average consideration. It’s not practical to leave town every time we need a habits reset, but having benefited so much from the open-endedness I so often fear, I know I am going to make an effort to bring that mindset into my daily life.

Maybe that will mean taking a weekend to try only new recipes. Perhaps it will be a once a week commitment to take a few hours of adventure, whether that means trying a new activity or reading a book from an author with a different perspective from mine. I don’t know exactly how a commitment to more frequent self-reflection will look yet, but I am very interested in the process.

Ultimately, the good news is that our bodies – and our minds – can be very forgiving. Even after months or years of being ignored, they are remarkably ready to talk as soon as we show interest. The day after my diatribe, Max seemed remarkably willing to still be my friend. He had eaten his protein bar for breakfast and, after a long morning of digging potatoes, it was lunchtime. To my protégé’s surprise, he felt genuinely hungry.


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Comments 8

  1. Mara:

    Thanks for the great advice on making a mindful change. As a 47 year old (soon to be 48) trying to improve health and performance, these are good things to keep in mind. Continued much success to you!

    Tom

  2. What’s “excess caloric deprivation”?
    Obviously, you are very interested in nutrition, so you probably have read all the intermittent fasting (IF) literature out there. IF was also discussed on this very blog (pros and cons for endurance athletes).
    Check out “The Science of Fasting” on Amazon Prime video. 54 very enlightening minutes on how wrong we are about the “5 meals per day” etc, etc.
    Please tell Max to ditch the protein bar and continue to fast. It’s good for him!

    1. Hi Mihnea, thanks for your message. My friend was not having breakfast any day and then skipping lunch too! I know there are people for whom intermittent fasting works well, but I think if you are physically active and working hard for six or more hours before you eat anything in the morning, I don’t think that is good in the long term!

      Thanks!

  3. Hi,

    The author is mislead by the community opinion when talking about how skipping breakfast will lead to weakening of immune system. Intermittent fasting is doing a lot of good things to the body of a grownup, including improving immune system. That is scientifically proven fact.

    Thanks

    1. Yeah, one “nutritional expert” tells you one thing, another says the exact opposite. Then these “nutritional experts” can’t figure out why people are so confused! DUH!!!!!!

    2. Sergey N:
      “The author is mislead by the community opinion when talking about how skipping breakfast will lead to weakening of immune system”

      The author didn’t make any such claim:

      “*RED-S* leads to immune system and endocrine disruption”

      The author, quite correctly, points out that chronic calorie restriction (“relative energy deficiency” wherein nutritional intake is insufficient to support activity levels) can lead to these issues.

      At no time did the article infer that the concept of IF is inherently problematic. Only that, for *this individual*, at *this point in time*, skipping breakfast is probably not a good idea; particularly as their activity levels are so high for a long period of time prior to fuelling.

      Assuming he could fuel sufficiently within two meals, and he wished to pursue IF for specific health improvements, he would be FAR better off skipping dinner. Indeed, there is much recent research to suggest that an “early time restricted feeding” is superior to a similar feeding window later in the day.

  4. Hello

    Really nice training “tit bits”!
    Enjoying these mail segment articles when they drop into my mailbox. As relatively new to endurance cycling any advice is beneficial.

    Many thanks

  5. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Thursday, Aug 9 | Ultrarunnerpodcast.com

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