My Journey To Health
Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)
March 25th, 2015
The following post is a bit of a departure from my usual ‘science-y stuff’. A bit of a more personal blog. It was inspired by a courageous post on the same topic by my friend, Tawnee Prazak, which you can read here. I present it in the hope that you can find the health-fitness-performance balance a little more quickly & painlessly than yours truly.
In a previous post, I talked about the “health base”. I even had a nice little graphic that showed health as the foundation to the performance pyramid. These days, I firmly believe this is the right way to play it, i.e. establish health first. After 2 decades of experience in high performance coaching, I am of the opinion, that establishing and returning to your health base is the only sure fire route to consistent high level performance. However, my own journey to get to the point of recognizing the importance of my own health foundation was a little different – more along the lines of the graphic heading today’s post :-) Here’s my story…
Age 0-10: The formative years…
I came into the world a healthy but socially anxious child. Right from the get-go, those stress hormones were getting a workout in any social situation. School was no fun. I loved the class room. Loved to learn but if we could just do away with that pesky lunch hour where I was expected to interact with the other kids :-) Long and short… anxiety was a constant factor from the start.
My family unit represented a very traditional middle class 1980's family and nutrition followed suit, i.e. carb heavy, relatively low quality protein & processed. To add… I was a picky eater which didn’t help matters. Here were my typical nutritional building blocks…
Breakfast: Toast and Butter
School Lunch: Fairy Bread (more bread and butter but with some variety – sprinkles on top :-)
Dinner: Carb heavy with some form of low quality protein
Snacks: Chocolate cookies and Cordial (sugar water).
I played a few weekend sports but my social anxiety kept me inside reading most afternoons.
I was (coincidentally enough) pretty sickly – Asthma, bronchitis, frequent ear infections etc.
Not off to a great start….
Age 10-20: I discover Swimming (and MORE carbs).
I discover the perfect sport for the socially anxious kid – swimming. No one yapping at you. Just put your head underwater and you’re in your own little world. In many ways, therapeutic. In others, not.
My swim program was emblematic of most age-group programs at the time, i.e. morning and afternoon sessions, 5x a week, all fairly high quality & inherently competitive within the squad. Add on to this swim meets on most weekends & club racing during the week.
As a tall, gangly sort of fella, with some natural aptitude in the form of in-built paddles and flippers, I improved pretty quickly relative to others of the same age and found myself in (at the back of) the serious “A Squad” before too long. This squad was one of the strongest country programs in the state - with several national level & even a couple of intenational swimmers &, like most squads, was programmed to the average, which meant for me, every session was pretty much at my limit just to keep up with everyone.
To fuel this anaerobic output, I ate carbs at an impressive rate! A loaf of bread a day plus all the sugary extras wasn’t unusual. Together, these 2 factors - frequent, very high intensity exercise + a ridiculous amount of carbs resulted in incredible energy fluctuations through the day – I’d literally nod off uncontrollably at inopportune times – on the school bus or in the stands before practice or during class! It also resulted in VERY frequent general sickness – colds and flus were a seemingly constant feature.
But, in spite of all this, I was getting faster & loving it!
Age 20-30: The Years of Imbalance – “The Real World” vs “Living The Dream”
My passion for swimming led me to buck my parents’ push to “use my brains for something worthwhile” & instead to study Sports Science(!) After finishing my masters in Exercise Physiology, I was 'fortunate enough' to land my dream job of swim coaching at one of the high performance programs in Sydney. However, the dream rapidly turned into a nightmare. Here is the schedule of someone trying to make a go of it as a full time swim coach…
3am – Wake up, eat a quick breakfast, commute by bike (~1hr) to the pool.
4am – Open the pool, take off the covers etc and get ready for first squads training at 5am
5-7am – Squad training
7-11am – OFF (eat, nap/pass out)
11am – 1pm: Odd jobs to make up your 40hrs a week.
1-4pm: OFF (more time to kill – usually program prep (unpaid) - most days too exhausted to train)
4-7pm: Evening squads
7-10pm: Talk with parents, attend club nights etc (all unpaid).
11pm – Get home, go to bed, ready to start it all again.
Needless to say, while I loved the job it was completely unsustainable (and completely unhealthy!) over the long term. I looked around at the other coaches who had been doing this for a decade or more. Everyone was constantly tired and run down all the time. There was no way to get the amount of sleep my body needed and have the time to take care of myself (good nutrition etc) on this schedule. I had to get out. So I did.
I moved to the States and, unable to get a Green Card for several months I made up for lost time as an athlete. I had just enough money to buy a cheap mountain bike from Walmart. Didn’t have enough money for a gym membership but the Florida cold springs made for the perfect (free) open water venue and I had lots of rural dirt roads to run on. I was living the dream and I loved it! I signed up for a bunch of run races, including my first marathon which I finished in 3:23.
It was all going great until the dream progressively turned into a bit of a nightmare as I discovered one inconvenient truth:
The lighter you get, the faster you run.
When I moved to the U.S. I was 6’5” and ~190lbs. Within 5 years, I was almost down to 150lbs.
I was hooked on getting faster, and consequently, hooked on eating less. This reached a crescendo as my first marriage headed south and (as my shrink said), I started looking for other areas of my life to control. And I did! I weighed and measured everything. Counted every calorie – both out and in. As I got more and more addicted, I discovered another inconvenient truth:
The lighter you get, the sicker you are!
I was getting faster (17:xx for 5K/ 2:53:xx for a marathon) and starting to podium in local tri's, that is, whenever I wasn’t sick or injured! If I was lucky enough to string together 2 or 3 months out of a year of good training, I could put together a good (but far from elite) result. However these consistent periods were becoming few and far between. I had…
- ITB tendonitis
- Tibialis Posterior Tendonitis
- Torn meniscus
- Stress fracture
All within the span of about a year & all, coincidentally enough, at my lightest weight. “Pretty standard” I thought at the time – running is tough on the body. All runners laying down ‘serious’ miles have to work through injury.
To add to matters, my body was so starved that I would all too frequently find myself at the (all too convenient) supermarket across the street, buying a gallon of ice cream and a crate of Dr Phil diet bars and going into a feeding frenzy that ultimately resulted in me feeling so sick that I’d throw it up. Now I’m no Doctor, but after this pattern was repeated a few times, I had to start to recognize that it looks a whole lot like Bulimia. Of course, I convinced myself at the time, it’s not the ‘crazy person’ type of Bulimia that focuses on body image (though I was growing rather fond of the increasing vascularity in my abs), no, this was just what serious athletes do – watch their calories to bring body fat down to ‘athletic levels’. A few ‘slip ups’ are par for the course.
I hope my writing style doesn’t make light of the severity of this problem. This is serious stuff and an all too common (though not commonly enough talked about) disorder in high performance sport.
Needless to say, I found myself at another position that was unsustainable. It all came to a head when one of my many flu bugs started hanging around for so long that I got it checked out and found that I had pneumonia. I was on the couch for the better part of a month doing nothing but sleeping, eating and recovering.
Something had to change…
Age 30-40: Finding balance, finding health
3 significant changes led me on my current (right) path:
- I met my wife, Jen and moved to the health mecca of Boulder, Colorado
- I met my long term friend (and mentor) Gordo Byrn, who helped me refine my path
- I watched helplessly as my Mum died from Leukemia.
In the absence of a counterbalance, my natural tendencies aren’t good. I found that perfect counterbalance in my wife, Jen. She is strong where I am weak. She is stable when I am not. I really am not sure where I would be right now without her influence. My best guess is some "Unabomber meets Howard Hughes" hermit but who knows?
Soon after we met, we both decided we were ready for a change so we up-rooted from Florida and moved to the health mecca of Boulder, Colorado. Upon moving, we discovered that this is a rather expensive place to live, so (ironically enough), I was further pushed in the right direction by a return to that “real world” job that I was doing my best to avoid.
I landed a job as the Personal Training Director at one of the largest fitness centers in Colorado. This regular 9-5 (and then some), while having all of the miserable aspects of any 9-5, kept me busy enough to save me from myself. By necessity, I started training less, eating more. Also, eating better quality since I had more money to play with. Life was still quite stressful and the job too time intensive to be truly healthy for me but it was a start. Remember that whole social anxiety thing? Yeah, being a manager wasn’t the right job for me :-) It wasn’t too long before I took a leave of absence to go train full time in Australia and New Zealand.
A part of this sabbatical was Epic Camp in 2006 - a circumnavigation of the South island of New Zealand by bike with a bunch of fellow crazies (aka Pro & top AG triathletes) I was undertrained, underprepared and underfed for this camp. Not the fault of the camp at all. Food was abundant, I was just returning to my old patterns. It was at this camp that I met Gordo, who, in his words was amazed that “I made it all the way around New Zealand on a few bits of Toast”. Excepting a few binges, this wasn’t far from the truth!
I was fortunate, on returning to Boulder, to land a job with Gordo coaching and performing physiological testing for endurance athletes. I was also blessed to have Gordo as a consistent (and persistent!) model of that balance between health and performance. Not coincidentally, Gordo was being advised by 6 time World Champion, Mark Allen at the time in his bid for Ironman Canada. A man who, via the influence of Dr. Phil Maffetone, was also somebody who was well versed in (heck, somebody who exemplified!), the importance of health to long term high level performance.
Gordo ate a lot (of good food – high quality carbs and protein) and trained a lot (of good aerobic miles) and slept a lot (of quality hours) and explored and had fun and, all the while, was very conscious of health. He advised me to eat more & lift more (strength train). I did. I got initially slower but healthier and I was able to train consistently. I was rarely sick or injured any more. This made me healthy & happy and significantly managed a lot of my natural anxiety.
Related strongly to this improved health - he also provided a path to make a living in a way that I enjoyed, a way that wasn’t excessively stressful, that left room for an appropriate amount of physical activity, that was congruent with my personal growth and, most importantly, didn’t compromise my long term health.
The final significant influence on my recent focus on health came when my Mum became sick with Leukemia and passed away. I won’t speak too much on this except to say that it brought the importance of being healthy and strong, and having reserve to draw on, into shockingly clear focus. Had I contracted a similar disease during my 150lb days, there is no way that I would have the energy to fight it. I was at my fastest but I was also at my furthest from true fitness and health. Traditional medicine is not set up to ‘encourage the fight’. When the time comes you must be ready. That fight must come from within and you have to be healthy enough & strong enough to muster it.
Age 40-50: A hopeful future
A golden rule of swim coaching is that the stroke error that you first see is also the last you’ll fix. The same principle is probably true in a lot of things.
My challenges in dealing with anxiety in the social sphere are my personal final frontier. I see these challenges 100% related to what I’ve discussed above – both health and performance.
Is it coincidental that those ‘natural’ athletes in school that we observe (& secretly envy) – the proverbial high school quarterback who has the musculature of Adonis as soon as he hits puberty and is also Mr. Popular, always seem so dang happy and well adjusted? Grrr :-)
Is it coincidental that studies consistently show the highest training response in the athletes with the healthiest profile of mood states? And, in HRV terms, those with the highest parasympathetic (relaxation) tone? Current research on over-training shows a distinct relationship between overtraining/under-performing and negative changes in personality - increased anxiety, increased depression etc. We assume that over-training causes these negative changes in mood, but what if the relationship goes the other way as well?
It’s been interesting to play around with Heart Rate Variability over the last year and see how my happiness and overall feeling of health & vitality ties in with my numbers. Those days where my numbers would indicate the highest training response (high parasympathetic activity) also seem to be the days that I’m most calm and happy & relaxed in all situations. My mission moving forward is to foster that more with a continued focus on pleasant aerobic training & some of the ‘softer’ forms of physical activity – yoga, tai chi etc, particularly on days where my sympathetic (‘fight or flght’) activity is high.
In addition, with every new positive relationship that I build, I become more comfortable in being around and sharing with others. I'm finally recognizing that there are some really good people in this big world with a lot to share and that inherent fear is progressively being chipped away bit by bit. I’m grateful to have so many of these people, these good relationships, in my life.
As my above uncensored ramble shows, with the increasing years, I’m gradually getting more comfortable socially sharing :-)
We’ve covered a lot of ground here. To sum it all up, my personal take home points on the keys to health from my (unconventional) life to date…
- Don’t starve yourself – eat sufficient high quality carbs, protein and fat to continue to grow. Feeding this growth is the only long term solution for both improving your fitness & maintaining your long term health.
- Don’t train hard all the time! The bulk of training should balance your other life stress, not add to it!
- Don’t work yourself to death – look for a job that gives you enough time to move an appropriate amount and to sleep an appropriate amount (without feeling guilty about it). If you’re not in it, be bold and find it. In the words of Jim Rohn - "You’re not a tree!"
- Recognize your personal ‘stress buttons’ and do your best to both minimize them and improve your ability to proactively relax & cope with them (especially true if looking to maximize your adaptation to training stress)
- Finally, recognize the opposite of this – your passions, the things that bring energy and health to your world (people, places, pursuits) and focus your life on including more of these. Life is too short for anything less.
Whatever your current motivation, whether peak performance, fitness or health – the above represent the only sure foundation.
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