Written by Jesse Thomas for Triathlete
How I overcame an unhealthy, unhappy obsession to realize sustainable health and performance.
I used to try to make myself throw up. Usually late at night, in a fit of guilt, shame and anxiety, and always after a massive binge on junk food. As you might suspect, these aren’t pleasant memories.
But for some reason, I couldn’t do it. Throw up, I mean. I’d try sticking my finger down my throat, gagging myself, heaving over a toilet for an hour, but no matter how hard I tried, nothing. In fact, I’ve only thrown-up a couple times in my entire life—“naturally,” with a nasty flu.
After every time I failed, I’d do the next logical thing—go for a bloated and extremely uncomfortable midnight run to furiously attempt to burn off the calories. I’d go to bed without eating, then I’d wake up and run again without eating. Sometimes, I’d wait until the following night or, at worst, the next morning to eat. At its craziest, I might follow a 2,000–4,000 calorie binge with 36 hours of no food and three 8–12 mile runs.
At the time, I knew it wasn’t right, but I would chalk the binge state up to mental weakness or “failure,” then do my best to “make up” for it. Even back then, I’d have considered myself a fairly intelligent individual, pursuing a double B.S./M.S. in Mechanical Engineering at one of the best universities on the planet. But for some reason, I never thought I really had a problem.
In collegiate distance running, and distance running in general, weight obviously plays a factor in performance. My team knew that. While running 100-mile weeks at pre-season XC camp, we’d sometimes joke, “I’m hungry … I’m going to go take a nap.” (When you wake up, you aren’t hungry anymore and you can go run again!) I was one of, if not the heaviest guy on the distance team. Combine that with an analytical/problem solving predisposition, and a young, unmastered type-A personality, and my weight naturally became an unhealthy obsession.
Looking back on it now, at its most innocent, I had periods of mild anorexic tendencies. At its worst, I was a full-blown bulimic. Even though I struggled to make myself throw up, the massive binge/purge episodes (the primary definition of bulimia) happened fairly regularly throughout my first few years at Stanford. They were usually during times when I wasn’t running well, put a ton of pressure on myself and had anxiety about impending engineering projects.
It should come as no surprise that I spent those early collegiate running years mostly hurt and unsuccessful. I had short bursts of promise, but it always caught up with me. At my lightest, I weighed 12 pounds less than I did when I eventually set all my personal bests, including my Stanfrod school record in the 3000m steeplechase. And now I’m still about five pounds heavier than those fast running days, but it’s the lightest I’ve been as a pro triathlete—which is partially why I’m writing this article.
A lot has changed since I was a 20-year-old distance runner. I’m now 36, have a kid, own a business, spent seven years not being an athlete and eventually found professional triathlon. Long story short, I’ve grown up a lot. I now clearly see the havoc those habits wreaked on my body, and I have the confidence and knowledge to walk the right side of the line when it comes to racing and my weight—a line I’ve been walking more diligently than ever in my professional career as I prepare for (hopefully) a big Ironman in the heat.
Weight does play a role in performance (but not the role, as I explain below), so I think it’s disingenuous and unrealistic to say, “Oh, I just won’t think about it at all. It doesn’t matter!” But I do think there’s a smart, healthy and balanced way to approach weight management. Below are the most important lessons and some techniques I’ve used to turn myself from 20-year-old crazy Jesse the runner into 36-year-old fairly normal Jesse the triathlete.
Your fitness should be measured by the results of your training, not your weight. The biggest problem I had in college was believing that I wasn’t fit until I weighed a certain number. If I woke up and was light that day, I was in shape; if I was heavy, I was out of shape. My confidence in workouts and races had everything to do with my weight and not my recent performances. This is, obviously, ludicrous. You should focus on good workouts, following your plan and monitoring weight as part of the bigger picture.
Don’t aim for a number on the scale, aim for consistently healthy habits. It’s easy to get fixated on a number that will make you feel confident to race, but the actual number is irrelevant. If you eat consistently healthy, sleep well, and get your workouts in, your body will adjust to the appropriate weight, and that is your ideal race weight.
Aim for a consistent B+, and let yourself focus on an A or A-, 1–2 times a year for about 8–10 weeks. Consistency is king, it keeps your body from constantly compensating for crazy highs and lows and, I believe, keeps you less likely to get sick, injured and burned out. As my career has progressed, I’ve maintained a healthy diet most of the time. During the off-season, I let myself slip to a B- and gain a few pounds. During the championship season, I focus on an A or A- for about 8 weeks, and drop that extra 2–3 pounds. Overall, I swing about 6–8 pounds (or about 5 percent of my bodyweight) throughout the course of the year, less than half of what I used to.
Avoid extreme diets and strict food restrictions. Just like setting impossible training goals can cause you to implode, impossible nutrition goals do the same. I never 100 percent limit myself from anything—alcohol, sugar, sweets, whatever. That way, I don’t set myself up to feel guilty about having one stupid cookie and making it way worse by freaking out.
If you think there’s a chance you have a problem—get help. Obviously, I’m not a doctor, just an athlete with a lot of experience, both success and failure. If you think you have a problem, this article is clearly not a replacement for seeking professional help. Check out NEDA’s website -Nationaleatingdisorders.org, as a place to start.
Those binge/purge memories are honestly some of the worst of my life. They made me feel guilty, ashamed, ridiculously uncomfortable and, in general, completely out of control. I hope what I’ve learned will help some of you build healthy weight habits and avoid some of the mistakes I made early in my athletic career.