Brandon Kowalczyk was a 32-year-old new dad and a self-described “skinny fat computer geek” when he fell in love with triathlon in 2014. Though he started training initially to improve his overall health, he began to fixate more and more on the aesthetic benefits of training and sought inspiration from elite triathletes. “I blame Luke McKenzie,” he laughs. “I saw an article about him in GQ about five years ago and I’m not going to lie—he looked incredible. He explained his training and diet in what I thought was pretty good detail. Something about it stuck with me. He had a family, he was eating a steak for dinner, and he drank too much coffee. I don’t know why, but it all seemed attainable.” By “it all,” Kowalczyk was not referring to McKenzie’s healthy work-life balance and cooking skills, but his washboard abs and dinner-plate-sized pectoral muscles.
The article, titled “How I Got My Body” also detailed his two or three workouts a day, yoga sessions, strength training, and a gluten-free diet. It did not, however, warn Kowalczyk that it was not a recipe for a Luke McKenzie physique–or Luke McKenzie performance. Despite adding in more mileage, strength training, and cutting out most gluten, Kowalczyk didn’t lose much body fat. He did lose more sleep trying to fit in extra training and energy when his new diet proved to be inadequate for his needs. “At some point, I realized that I was thinking less about improving as an athlete and more about how I looked doing it. It seemed pretty superficial to me.”
Do you want to look like a triathlete or be a triathlete?
Using an elite athlete’s body as inspiration can be not only superficial, but self-defeating. It can also set back progress if we become energy-deficient by following their diet, and can even be dangerous if that diet becomes overly restrictive. What started off as innocent admiration quickly becomes a serious hit to mental health. Kirsten Screen, a Registered Dietitian who works with endurance athletes of all levels, explains why we fall into this trap. “People make an assumption that the body type determines the success, but the years of training and creating an efficient engine is what creates the success. The side effect is whatever body type the person ends up with. The performance has nothing to do with the aesthetic.”
While Screen’s explanation is logical and clear, it may be easily forgotten in a world full of social media glamour shots of athletes, “What I Eat in a Day” videos, and shoddy nutritional advice coming from the uninformed and unqualified. Our community may be particularly vulnerable to this kind of information, since many of us suffer from body dissatisfaction, according to a study in which 100% of 583 triathletes indicated that they were unhappy with their body size.
The physical form of the triathlete is sometimes celebrated as much as athletic ability in the media. Even Triathlete has fallen into this trap in the past, running a contest in previous years that encouraged people to submit selfies that would be voted on to determine “The Best Bodies in Triathlon.” [Editor note: Yes, that happened.] The idea that hard training creates a certain type of “best body” perpetuates the idea that if you don’t look good, then you likely didn’t work hard. Research shows that this myth ignores genetic differences, doesn’t consider personal nutritional needs, and can wreck self-image through comparison. It can also lead to a one-size-fits-all approach to fueling and inevitable frustration when it doesn’t work.
Don’t let comparison steal your triathlon joy
Psychotherapist Stephanie Roth-Goldberg has seen athletes struggle with mental health and become incredibly discouraged when they do not measure up to an aesthetic ideal. “It takes the focus off of accomplishments and puts it onto something that is unlikely to be achieved. That creates a cycle of constant disappointment that makes sport more of a chore and less of a hobby.” She believes this is due to a disconnect between what is realistic for a professional athlete versus a recreational athlete. Elite athletes have a singular professional focus and spend their entire day training, work with nutrition professionals, and have time to recover properly. However, the recreational athlete likely has a full-time job, plus triathlon training and all of the associated activities. Despite the fact that we line up at the same races, we are not in the same league.
Refocus on your body, not the perfect body
To get back on track, it’s important that we take a moment to recognize why we want to be triathletes and understand that each goal comes with possible limitations. Studies show that if the goal is to lose weight quickly, performance will likely not reach its potential because we’ll be in an energetic deficit. If the goal is to perform well, we may have to accept that our bodies may not immediately meet an imagined aesthetic ideal.
If you decide that you love triathlon irrespective of what your body looks like, then the next question to ask yourself is, “Am I eating enough?” Screen says that most athletes come to her under-fueled and she always takes the time to emphasize that they will not accelerate their progress by getting smaller. “If I was a dietitian who worked with people whose primary goal was to lose weight, those same people would probably not be able to do an Ironman,” she said. Of course, fat loss or body composition changes can ultimately happen as a result of properly fueled training and a body that becomes more metabolically efficient, but it shouldn’t be the main goal.
A registered dietitian can help you achieve that efficiency, putting you in the sweet spot between a healthy body and improved performance. A psychotherapist can help you achieve peace of mind if you’re struggling to let go of the image of the “ideal body” and replace it with the image of the ideal you. Red flags to look for that may indicate the need to speak to one or both types of professionals include a desire to only eat special foods, feeling anxious about meals, excessive muscle soreness, slowing or stagnant performance during training, mood swings, and food sensitivities.
It is likely that you’ll see more chatter about weight loss and body composition changes at this time of year. “In January, everyone’s first thought is: I have to be smaller. If you’re following advice that tells you that you have to cut out entire categories of foods or live by a formula, it’s not right for you,” Screen said. To shut down the noise, it’s helpful to do a social media purge. Unfollow or mute accounts of anyone that encourages you to excessively focus on aesthetics. Temporary removal of triggering images can be a great way to readjust your mindset about what is realistic and what is not. Stay away from videos or content from anyone who shares nutrition information in a way that suggests that you will achieve the exact same benefits or results. Above all, remember that you’re a triathlete because you love it and there’s no body-type requirement to swim-bike-run.
Are you too focused on elite aesthetics?
- Overly strict adherence to dietary protocols and making “closeout” statements like “This just doesn’t work for me” or “I don’t eat that.”
- Restriction of certain foods or food groups
- General overwhelm, fear, or anxiety around food and eating
- Resistance to participating in meals and food-related activities
- Poor performance or stagnant performance despite increasing efforts
- Food cravings and feeling abnormally hungry
- An increase in food sensitivities, poor digestion, stomach upset
- Chronic muscle soreness, tired/heavy legs
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Jill Colangelo is a writer and researcher of mental health and ultra endurance sport. She has a BA and ALM in psychology and is a former triathlete and ultramarathoner.