What is a healthy diet? Does a healthy diet mean the same thing for non-athletes as it does for athletes? The simple answer is, absolutely not. Diet is as individual as exercise and just like exercise it will change throughout your life, training cycle, and even from day to day. I’m going to tell you a little about my experience with diet and dietary changes from the start of my endurance career to the present. Again, diet is highly individual, and I am in no way recommending anyone try the things I am about to describe.
In 2008 I competed in my first ironman triathlon. The race was in Louisville, Ky in the summer time, and it was blazing hot. My everyday diet at the time was not the best. It is a fair assessment to say that my diet consisted of primarily processed foods, and enough gels and sports drink to kill a horse. Being inexperienced and not clearly understanding my limits in that race, I over did my bike effort early on and starting throwing up gels around mile 50. It didn’t stop there. The next 62mi of the bike were a disaster and the run got pretty ugly as well. Going forward I made a few key changes to my race nutrition and was able to knock off 1.5 hours in the next try at the distance, 6 weeks after the first. Over the next few years I still battled with GI issues off and on in training and racing. I found the right race day nutrition for myself over the iron distance, but was still lacking in other places.
After a tough race at the Great Floridian Triathlon in 2009, I became seriously dehydrated to the point of passing out while walking to my car after the race. When I woke up I had no idea where I was or where my car was parked. The GI issues were much worse than ever for a good 6months after the race until finally discovering I had ischemic colitis due to the extreme dehydration in that race. I had a hard time eating pretty much anything before a workout with severe distress right away in each workout. Something had to change. Besides resting properly and allowing some time to heal, I changed several things in my diet. I began to eliminate nuts and seeds and whole wheat/grains that were seemingly so difficult to digest at the time. I also started cutting back significantly on processed foods. 7 years later and still can’t eat tomatoes two days in a row or the seeds bother me.
Fast forward to 2011, the year we went vegan. My wife has been a vegetarian for most of her life, but I ate a fair amount of animal products all of my life. That year, to support her and also work on my own healthier eating, I decided to eliminate all meat and dairy products. Filling my diet with so many colorful and nutritious fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans made me feel amazing. The first two weeks were a little rough, but then I began to feel the benefits of eating all the healthy/unprocessed foods all the time. 3 months later I qualified for a elite license and had two strong ironman races in two weeks time. That was it, I was sold, vegan is the way to go for me.
Starting the 2015 triathlon season I was more motivated than ever and looking to step things up within the pro ironman field. I began working with new coaches and also changing some things in terms of training focus. It seemed as though I was not able to handle the same training load as the other elite athletes under the same coaches or others for that matter. The level of commitment and training required to compete at a truly elite level is unbelievable sometimes. I would have good and bad days. Right from the beginning my coaches were concerned with my vegan diet, but respected my choices completely. After a few months of mostly breakthrough training sessions I was ready to see this new fitness put to use in a race. Two days before the race I started to catch a cold. On race day my face and ears were a mess and I didn’t have the race I had hoped. Oh well, stuff happens, onwards and upwards I thought. Then about a month later I started to have lateral hip pain that caused me to not be able to run in training for a few weeks. Because of this I skipped Ironman Texas and decided to look for a 70.3 in July sometime. I chose Racine 70.3 which was a cool experience and my homestay was awesome. However, the race was another story. I almost did’t fly up to Wisconsin for the race since I was feeling pretty sick. My cough was nasty and my head felt horrible, but was so eager to race I had to give it a try. No go, I have never felt so weak and unenthused during a race in my life. I pedaled easy the back half of the bike course and went straight to the medical tent when I hit transition. I knew something was really wrong. Shortly after arriving home it was more of the same. The illness got worse and I broke out in a rash all over my legs from something I picked up in the pool I guess. My immune system was shot. I found out later that my adrenals were barely hanging on. DHEA was non existent and cortisol was all wrong too. We figured out that I was deficient in several things, including 5 amino acids that actually were in my diet through powder form, but I had not been absorbing them. In hindsight I believe the years of training the way I had, and possibly the lack of certain things in my diet coupled with poor absorption of nutrients led to the issues that came to head this past year. You can get away with it until you can’t. Finally I couldn’t get away with it. Everyone has a breaking point, but the healthier the athlete overall, the further away that point tends to be.
Overtraining was not my problem, nor is it the problem for most athletes. The bigger issue is lack of proper recovery to support the training, and nutrition is a huge piece of it. Be cautious of the hormonal response of certain types of training and the long term implications of less than ideal recovery. That being said, work works, and hard yards are absolutely essential to high performance.
Onwards and Upwards