There was an article in September's issue of Triathlete magazine titled, "The legend of Mr. Triathlon," that really struck a chord with me. In this article, the author describes trying to silence the perfectionist within and balance his competitive edge with being healthy and having fun. It's definitely easy to overdo it. Why else would we read so many articles on overtraining (and then write them off b/c they don't apply to us)?
There is a drill seargent that sits on my shoulder and shouts orders. I always feel compelled to obey, although I don't as much anymore (I have a couch potato on the other shoulder; some people have angels and devils; I have drill seargents and couch potatoes). He's always shouting, "Eat less! Work harder! Exercise more! Go farther, faster, harder! Be perfect!" Sometimes, I ignore him and am happy with what I can do. Other times, my drill seargent tears apart and tells me I'm no good.
I used to think I was alone in obsessing about the "perfect" body image, shape, and weight. That I was the only one in the gym for hours on end, ensuring I got my exercise in. Even though the AHA only recommended about 6 hours of physical activity a week (including gardening and cleaning), that didn't apply to me. No. That wasn't acceptable for me. I had to go above and beyond that.
I never actually had an eating disorder but I walked the line. I definitely had/have body image issues. Everyone has one body part they hate. My nemesis is my gut (on many levels b/c I also suffer from IBS). I can't stand the pooch that poofs out over my pants. I used to obsess about it (I still do to some extent). I wanted to have "Britney Spears abs" (before she had kids, obviously) and began doing several hundred sit-ups a day, upping the cardio, and counting calories.
Never mind that the actresses in Hollywood and models on the catwalks are unhealthy, all have eating disorders, and all have plastic surgery. Never mind that their bodies aren't naturally like that. I became obsessed with making my body conform to that image. And I'm a smart person. I know all about eating disorders, the media, the hype, that these bodies aren't "real." And I still tricked myself into this mindset. I love the recent news stories on the new restrictions on super-skinny runway models. (They won't be allowed to participate in fashion shows unless they have a B.M.I. of at least 18, which means the minimum weight for the average, 5'9" model is 120! Over 1/3 of them won't meet this requirement. Models with BMIs of 16 or below will receive medical intervention. The model agencies are arguing that this is discrimination against naturally thin people. Puh-lease! No one that eats well and is 5'9" or taller weighs 90 lbs!!!)http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-2349467,00.html
The majority of the country is overweight or obese (statistics from the NIH, based on BMI). http://win.niddk.nih.gov/statistics/index.htm
There are people who really do benefit from nutritionists, balanced but restricted diets, food journals, etc. And everyone should exercise and eat healthfully. But then there are others who really should eat more. I've never been able to be happy at my "healthy" weight. At 5'8", 130 lbs., I'm naturally lean. I should be happy. My BMI (body mass index, which is height in meters squared, divided by weight in kg) is 20, right there on the low side of healthy, according to the NIH (Normal is between 19 and 24).
(You can calculate your BMI at the following website: http://www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi/)
However, I still have this damn "pooch" that I find unacceptable. I think my low point was on a hot, humid run in St. Louis one brutal summer day. I was pushing my pace, like always, and felt awful. I felt naseous and sick. Jason told me to stop, and I refused. He asked why I wouldn't just take a walk break. My answer was, "Not unless I fall down, pass out, or throw up." Then I actually began wishing for one of those things to happen in order to justify slowing down.
A few months after dieting and spending hours upon hours at the gym, I began suffering from minor overuse injuries from running every day. I started mixing in swimming. Then came the bike. Triathlon followed shortly after. It seemed like fun. That's a good thing. Like a great way to apply all that fitness I had been building at the gym. It also seemed like a great way to legitimize the unhealthy mindset I had adopted. "Oh, I can't eat that b/c I'm in training. I have to exercise this much b/c I'm training."
In my first season of triathlon, my largest week load was 18, and I was averaging 15, enough for an Ironman. I was doing sprints. After completing a few races during my first season, I suffered from fatigue, overuse injuries, and was fast-approaching burn-out. I read an article about overtraining and realized my symptoms fit to a tee. I realized if I didn't cut back on training and rest more, I wouldn't be able to keep it up, and my performance would suffer.
A transition ensued. Instead of caring about body-image, I focused on performance. Triathlon began transforming the way I perceived myself. It wasn't about how I looked, it was about what I could do. I have become much better at listenign to my body and allowing myself to cut back and rest when I need it. But I'm not perfect (hmmm. new concept). I still err on doing too much and beat myself up for not doing more.
Focusing too much on performance can also trigger my drill seargent. It's like swapping one obsession for another. I admit, I walk a fine line. It's great to have a competitive edge and strive to be healthy and active. But, especially with triathlon, there's a fine line that I must walk on--to do enough, but not too much. It's not like a drug addiction, where you cut the drug out of your life forever. I hope to always eat a balanced diet and lead an active lifestyle. But I'm learning when to ignore the drill seargent and listen to my body and when the drill seargent might positively motivate me to push my limits and see how far I can go and what amazing goals I can achieve.
Time to go for a run. Nothing makes me feel more alive than my heart pounding in my chest and the sweat dripping down my chin. Good music in my ears and the rhythm of my feet pounding the dirt beneath me. The smell of the salt water from the ocean and the sight of pelicans flying overhead. It's all about keeping it fun.