I haven’t really written here about the triathlon training I’ve been doing for the past two and a half years. There are a few reasons for that. Time, energy and desire contribute. But mostly it’s because it has always been a personal thing that I wasn’t all that interested in telling a bunch of people. That is mostly because I haven’t been all that good at it. For 30 months I’ve been running and swimming and biking and not been all that great at the whole lot of it. I’m certainly capable of some things that have impressed people (two half ironman distance races complete and several other triathlons in that time), but none of it was up to the standards I have in my head as an endurance athlete.
I feel like that’s changing for me right now, and I think I know why. Over the past two months I’ve improved my running significantly. Significantly. As in, I have gone from tooling around at about a 10:30 to 11:00 pace on the trails and about a 10:15 pace on the roads to one where I have lost over a full minute (and probably more, but I’m not willing to count it yet) off of my pace on both types of terrain. I’ve improved my splits in swimming to the point where I simply don’t lose the pace anymore. I can complete a workout set up for my without having to rest longer or change split times halfway through because I was too tired. After more than two full years of struggling with the slower, weaker workouts it has all changed in the past two months. I think it’s because I simply decided to count calories.
It’s kind of a weird thing. When I began my training, I almost immediately dropped 20 pounds off of my 235 pound frame. I was fat, and I got to the point of being not so fat. Good, solid cardio can do that. I even dropped another ten not long after, but went on a trip for the 2011 Hawaii Bowl, gained that ten back over the holidays, and never really could lose it again. I tried thing after thing, like no alcohol for six weeks or smarter breakfasts or whatever. I had heard from people that those things could help you start to lose that weight here and there. It never worked.
I wasn’t ever really willing to take the full plunge and start limiting my food intake because I kind of always had that attitude of “I’m doing this to be healthy, not thin.” That still probably mostly holds. I’m not into my training because I want to get ripped and look good. I do it to be able to climb the stairs at a football game and not be gassed. But I also love to race. I love it. The most exciting thing to me right now is a sprint triathlon. I like the distances—short, fast, a good workout to get your morning started. And man, I love the three events (except biking sucks). But I was still kind of slow. Not even kinda, I guess. I wasn’t improving year over year all that much, and I really, really wanted to get faster.
I talked with my coach, an admitted technophobe who carries around a ridiculous flip phone, and asked him what I could do to get faster. I knew in my heart that meant losing some weight and I told him so. He had a really simple solution: get a damn app to count calories and just start tracking your diet. He didn’t make any demands on what I should be eating (although he’s a vegetarian and thinks everyone should be). He just said that someone like me, who always has his phone, should be using it for this type of self-improvement. So, I grabbed an app—My Fitness Pal (one Christy had been using for herself)—and began keeping track of what I ate.
Because I was doing this for the express purpose of losing some weight to get faster by the next racing season, I set a goal of losing about a pound and a half each week. My goal was to get to 190 for sure, but I’d take 180 or 175. Physically, it was never that tough. Mentally, the first few weeks are pretty hard. I thought about food all day. How long did I have to wait until I could throw down that cheese I brought to snack on? What could I eat now that would help me stay full but not crush the calories I had planned for dinner? Could I go out to lunch and not blow my daily limit out of the water?
Those questions made for a difficult first few weeks. I still wanted to meet up with some friends and have a couple of beers. In fact, a good portion of my thoughts were dedicated to whether my run or swim would be enough to have two beers at the end of a particular day because that was in the cards. It was important to me to keep living a certain way and not have to give up everything I enjoyed. I had a few moments where I wondered if I just had to sacrifice those things for the first ten weeks or so to start to see some progress. There was also the trip to Fresno for a football game where I was so worried about my meal planning that I walked to McDonalds and bought two McDoubles and a McChicken and rationed them out over the course of pre game, game and the post game drive home because they would get me exactly to my limit for the day and I knew I would need it. That’s how much I was thinking about the calories.
What I’ve learned since then is that you develop habits. I have a breakfast that is low calorie each day but I know will sustain me until at least 11:00. If I have a later lunch, I’ll throw in an apple or something like that in between. They fill me up relatively well but come in at under 100 calories. I barely ever go out to eat for lunch right now, and when I do, it’s on a long run day so I can make sure to make it up before I even eat. I eat a way more sensible dinner just about every night. I almost never have more than I need, which was always the case before. And I don’t snack on things later on. Simply having the knowledge that your body doesn’t need to eat that stuff has been enough for me to not go eat something that will hurt my efforts here. It’s willpower I wasn’t sure I had before.
Make no mistake, I’ve had days where I went over and said screw it, but they are rare. And overall it is working. I’m down ten pounds from where I started to 203. I have even had a weekend where I went with some friends to visit a few breweries in northern California—not exactly your low calorie extravaganza.
Now for a couple of notes about what I have completely cut out of my diet. I am a huge lover of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I haven’t even looked at it since I started. I haven’t had anything to drink during the day that wasn’t coffee with a small amount of cream or water. Outside of beers and a few glasses of wine, I have had nothing to drink this entire time with any significant number of calories in it. I have a chocolate soy milk in my office that has been sitting there for a while. I won’t touch it because it has 150 calories and won’t do anything to fill me up. If you’d like it, let me know and I’ll find a way to get it to you.
So, back to the original reason for all of this: am I faster? Yes, I am. I ran a five mile circuit today that was at an 8:43 pace, which I’m not sure I can completely count yet because it was a familiar road route. But that’s :25 faster per mile than I ran it a couple of weeks ago, and that was a much faster pace than I had run before at the time. I also feel fantastic on my runs lately. One byproduct of counting calories has been that I don’t ever miss workouts anymore. I need them to be able to eat how I want to eat on a given day, so I make sure not to skip them. So maybe it’s not the weight, but the training that has been the bigger improvement. I don’t really care. This is working, and it’s cool.