Thursday, September 14, 2006

Triathlon and the Drill Seargent

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!!!),,3-2349467,00.html,23663,20393440-5007192,00.html

The majority of the country is overweight or obese (statistics from the NIH, based on BMI).
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:

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.


bunnygirl said...

Wow, you have written so much that I can relate to!

Luckily I've never had enough self-discipline for dieting, so I didn't fall into the trap of fad diets that can wreck your metabolism.

They taught us in college that muscle weighs more than fat, so you can lose inches while gaining weight. What a revelation! I never worried about the numbers on a scale after that.

Instead, my policy is to not buy bigger clothes than what I've already got. This method has never steered me wrong, and it's why I'm wearing 2s and 4s at the age of almost-40.

Other than that, I manage my food and exercise like a budget. I can only eat a certain amount each day. If I want to eat more, I have to do more-- run, walk, swim, whatever. It's no different from managing money-- if I want to spend more than my budget, I have to go out and earn more.

Like you, I would love to get rid of the genetic curse of a poochy belly. And yes, I've often found myself walking that fine line between obsession and sanity with regard to food, body image, sport, and a whole host of other things.

But there's nothing wrong with being near the boundary. You just have to recognize it when you see it, and stay on this side, where it's safe.

Have a great run!

Cliff said...


..about body image...I do have sort of prob with that. I use to work out a lot and now i have a lot of upper body mass that i don't need. I always wish I can drop 3-4 lbs or so and I will be like one of the pro IM.

I have walked the line of burning out a few times. I am lucky, nothing too serious like injury where i have to take a month off.

I was thinking more about this and realize the prob with us triathletes is not working too little, it is working too hard.

My next season goal is to have fun. B/c hte more fun i have the more i want to do. The more volume i do, the better i will get. You see what i am saying..and for a while i am putting the cart in front of the horse, focus on performance and training volume. In reality, fun should be in the front.

U should change your name. This post clearly show u ain't an amateur triathlete no more :).

Jessi said...

Wow, this entry really struck a chord with me and I can relate to it on all levels - from body-obsession to performance-obsession.
Excellent post.

As for your little pooch, I think it's extra funny that you mention that, because the other day I was looking at some of your event pics thinking "Damn her, she is just one of those naturally thin people blessed with a model's build. That's so not fair!"

JeffM said...

Great post! I did a tri on Sat and a ride on Sun- then woke up late for work on Mon- the body lets you know when you've overdone it.

Zoo said...

Wow, that's all I can say is WOW. I think you just won my best post of the year award.

It's amazing how all us athletes seem to think basically the same way. I too feel as if I always have a drill seargent on one solder and some lazy ass bastard on the other and in between I'm trying to spend a little bit of time with both so I don't over do it but it's so hard when you spend SO MUCH time training and still have so far to go. I've fallen into the same trap as yourself where I'm all about performance now and I've just convinced myself that if I lose that last 15lbs that it will help my performance on the bike expodentially. And then there are those people who can train 1/2 the amount that we do and have great results. I just met this kid, 15 years old who is a cat 3 racer and one the last race I just did in the cat 3/4 field!!! He just started racing and not only this but he only trains a few times a week..."when he feels like it", he doesn't have to train EVERY DAY like you or I do. It's people like that who I royally dispise.

It's funny what you said about you not slowing down unless you fell down, pass out, or throw up. Us cycists have a saying that goes "If you throw up then you know you're working hard enough" or the whole "If you don't see Elvis at the finish then you didn't work hard enough".

Great article once again and good luck with the training!!

Tammy said...

I think triathlon is a sport that attracts the Type A personality. There is so much to juggle, that you have to be very detail-oriented, almost to the point of OCD, to get it all into your schedule and still work, live, love. Sounds like you know your demons, and that's good.

Myself, I'm happy to be doing nothing right now. I've done my last race of the year, and I'm in transition. I'm looking forward to a leisurely swim and/or run with you in a few days, but otherwise, I'm happy to just 'be' for a few ;)

See ya!

Habeela said...

It's definitely what I call "Beauty and the Beast" - the good attributes (being driven) countered with what happens when your sargeant starts talking too loudly (the Beast). Great thoughts!

jessie_tri_mn said...

Great post Rachel. Thanks for talking about some of the "behind the scenes" aspects that plague us all as we train for multi-sport events.

Having suffered from multiple overuse injuries while running marathons, I thought that triathlon was the final answer. I didn't realize that there is SO MUCH MORE obsession associated with this sport. I have an addictive personality, and I always convince myself that this is better than smoking, drinking, drugs, etc.

Thankfully, like you, I have the couch potato on my other shoulder too :)

DaveActive said...

Wow Rachel. Thank you for your openess and honesty, and for sharing with us. I personally appreciate the struggle over performance and training you've worked through and have been looking at that myself, but it seems you know your demons and motivations outright so I'm glad to also see you are finding your place and balance. I'm right there with you on the type A, OCD, etc. pitfalls with all the body image issues (my favorite self-medication for negativity is food). I'll just leave you with a thought that I've been contemplating this week. During a yoga class our instructor talked about yoga as being an act of "undoing" rather than "doing", and that it's not a "workout", but a "work-in" of good energy. So on the road or in the water I've been thinking less about performance and more about my "work-in" "undoing" all the mental junk that created the weight, stress, poor body image and overtraining too. Keep up the great work!

Kate said...

Two words- thank you!!

Mon said...

I had that whole body image issue, when I was really too thin to begin with. It's when I started starving myself, and obsessing about exercise that I actually started gaining weightthen surpassed healthy to unhealthy. Funny how that happens. It's good to read more people that can admit they struggle with inner demons too!
And I agree with Jess, you look fabulous, and I've thought the same thing, you must naturally be thin. we are our own worst critics!

Jessica said...

Did I write this? (Wait - I'm not naturally thin, so not that part)

But yeah - I'm so with you. Thanks!

triteacher said...

Woah, do I hear you on walking the fine line. I too wonder sometimes if I've swapped one obsession (I struggled with eating disorders for 6 years) for another - triathlon. Yet, I think I'm in the same category as you; I'm leading an active, healthy lifestyle and (mostly, when I recognize it) ignoring the nasty part of my "drill sergeant". And I feel happy, so that's a good sign.

Last, thanks for stopping in!