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The Journey From Out-of-Shape to Triathlete: Three Stories And Their Tips

Three triathletes share their weight loss journeys and the nutritional tools that helped them reach their goals.

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Some triathletes take up the sport for a new challenge; others, to discover just how far they can go. But for many, the entry point for swim, bike, and run is a desire to get healthier. Health comes in many forms, from relief from anxiety or depression to a reduced risk of heart disease. For these three triathletes, a love of swim-bike-run also led to a healthier, stronger body. These are the stories of their journeys and the tools that helped them reach their goals.

A last-ditch attempt to avoid surgery

When a friend unexpectedly lost her fiancé, despite being young and in great shape, Shad McGaha scheduled a checkup with his doctor. McGaha had been overweight his entire life, so when his doctor saw how high his blood pressure was, he suggested gastric bypass surgery. “It really caught me off-guard—I knew I was heavy, but I had never really thought about it,” he said. “My wife and I discussed it, and we asked him if he would give me some time to try on my own first.”

It was the motivation he needed to join Weight Watchers and buy an elliptical machine—he could barely tackle a 20-minute workout on day one. Elliptical workouts graduated to running workouts, which led to his first half-marathon, marathon and—after watching Ironman Hawaii on TV—triathlon. “This sport gets in your blood,” he said. “Each time I swore I was done, it didn’t take long before I was looking for another race.” He realized that signing up for a challenge kept him motivated, so, at age 33, he set the goal of finishing 40 half-marathon (or longer) races before he turns 40, which he’ll complete this November at Ironman Arizona if everything goes to plan. “My goal of Kona may never come true [by qualification],” he said, “but it does not stop me from entering the lottery every year.”

McGaha’s Strategies

Know yourself. McGaha lost his first 100 pounds using the Weight Watchers points system. “For someone who did not make the best food choices, this was a great start to my education,” he said. While he strictly followed the rules, he allowed himself one cheat meal per week. “I knew if I never allowed myself to eat the things I loved, I would not stick with this new lifestyle for the long term.”

Prepare meals for the week. McGaha and his wife batch cook on Sundays—3–4 entrees portioned out for lunches and dinners. “This has been a huge part of our success,” he said.

RELATED: The Busy Triathlete’s Guide to Meal Prepping

Hire a coach. Some coaches can help you with both training and meal planning, such as McGaha’s coach, Morris Brossette, who gives him menus for the week.

Order smart when eating out. Before going out to eat, McGaha looks up the restaurant’s nutritional guides (when available) to help him make the best choices. But when faced with unfamiliar restaurants or social settings, his coach taught him to choose a lean protein and steamed vegetables. “Also, don’t be afraid to request no oil or butter,” he says.

Favorite snack: 6 ounces of plain Greek yogurt, 1 teaspoon of raw local honey and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon.

“Make a few of these ahead of time so you have it to grab when needed,” McGaha said.

A rediscovered passion for triathlon

Travis McKenzie’s dad was a competitive triathlete in the early ’90s, so naturally McKenzie was swimming, biking, and running from a young age—racing his first Ironman at age 20 and finding fulfillment in living an active lifestyle. Then things changed: “I was too focused on results, and it wasn’t fun anymore,” he said. “A bad race would lead to months of being down in the dumps.” McKenzie got caught up in a busy work lifestyle, gained weight, and didn’t make sport a priority.

McKenzie hit rock bottom in 2011, when he broke his leg in a pickup game of Australian football—he was on crutches for three months and developed a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. It gave him time to reflect: “I was looking in the mirror and staring back at me was a complete stranger.” He resolved to get back in shape and race the sport he loved, and someday compete in the Ironman World Championship—something he had dreamed of during his early triathlon days. While he was still on crutches, he signed up for Ironman Arizona with his brother and dad, set for one year later. He started with a very slow 1500 meters in the pool when things clicked—the feeling of fulfillment was back, and he knew he was on the road to physical and emotional recovery. It was a long process of regaining his fitness, but he focused on enjoying the training, staying consistent and hitting small milestones, like completing a 5K run. In 12 months, he trained his way to a sub-10-hour Ironman (9:57) in Arizona.

In the span of three years, McKenzie went from crutches to racing an Ironman to qualifying for Kona, which he did at Ironman Melbourne earlier this year with a 9:06 finish. He met his goal of racing in Hawaii this year, but has now set a new goal—“to become a lifelong athlete,” he said. “I want to challenge myself for as long as I’m around.”

McKenzie’s Strategies

Clean up your diet. “Removing wheat, dairy, and refined sugars from your diet is a smart way to lose weight and keep energy levels high,” McKenzie said. He also emphasizes including nutrient-dense options to keep you full longer.

Be patient with your training progression. Consistency should be your top priority in training to avoid burnout. “Don’t jump in and do 15 hours the first week and nothing for the next three weeks,” he said. “Incremental increases are the best for long-term results.” Along the same lines, don’t fret if you eat a not-so-nutritious meal—“get back on the wagon of healthy eating for the next meal.”

Don’t go hungry. You can avoid succumbing to the high-sugar, high-carb cravings by never letting yourself get too hungry—bring almonds, cut fruit or trail mix with you for healthy snacks. Also, make sure you practice your race-day nutrition during long rides and runs—the cravings can sneak in after a hard workout if you didn’t fuel enough during a session.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Make sure you drink water throughout the day. “Sometimes hunger is dehydration in disguise,” McKenzie said.

Eat in. Buy groceries for the week so you can cook at home. Make the most of your time by cooking enough for a healthy dinner as well as an easy-to-grab lunch for the next day.

RELATED: The Great Race Weight Debate

Starting small for big results

Katrina Clay struggled with being overweight since childhood, but when her father, a Vietnam War veteran, started suffering from the effects of Agent Orange exposure, she realized she needed to change her own life. “While my dad was trying to live even though there was nothing he could do to stop his illness, I was doing nothing to live healthy and strong, even though I had the potential to,” she said. “After he passed away, I made the decision to start living my life every day the healthiest I could.”

To kick-off her weight-loss journey, Clay started seeing a nutritionist. At the first meeting, the nutritionist handed her a list of small goals—ones that seemed almost too minuscule—and challenged her to stick to one of them for a week. She chose “say ‘no’ to mayo,” and for the entire week, she avoided mayonnaise on her sandwich at lunch. “This was the first weight-loss goal I had ever made and kept,” she said. She chose a second small goal for the next week, and slowly started building her self-confidence as she set and reached her goals.

She then began adding fitness into her routine, starting with walking a quarter-mile. After spotting a guy wearing a “Try a Tri” shirt, she decided to make triathlon her new goal. She enjoyed the variety in her workouts for her sprint- and Olympic-distance triathlons, and has lost almost half her body weight. “Over time my views of working out changed forever,” she said. “What used to be a chore was now fun; what used to be called exercise now was called training.”

Clay’s Strategies

Find what works for you. Clay says that she’s never been very disciplined with portion control, so she sought out a diet where she didn’t have to follow super strict limits. She decided on a plant-based diet, which she’s done for the past four years. She’s found she’s eating more nutrient-dense foods, which keeps her full longer, while eating less processed foods, leading her to feel more energetic and recover from workouts more quickly.

Take baby steps. Looking too far down the road to “losing 100 pounds” or “completing an Ironman” can get overwhelming. “Start small by setting simple goals,” Clay said. “Over time your confidence will build and you will realize you can do all kinds of things you never thought possible.”

Don’t go it alone. Clay suggests finding local triathlon clubs, group rides, and Masters swim workouts. The camaraderie and motivation gained from meeting fellow athletes will go a long way in helping you reach your goals.

Conquer the sweet tooth.
The longer she’s stuck with a plant-based diet, the more her taste buds have changed. She can satisfy her sweet tooth with cold watermelon, grapes or oranges. If she’s really craving chocolate, she chooses a vegan bar from the Endangered Species Chocolate line.

RELATED: What Your Food Cravings Are Trying to Tell You

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Triathlete magazine.