Note, I’ve retitled and edited this post as of October 2019 to reflect the fact this article was written not so much to educate others on what to do but as more of my personal journey. Updates are in italics.
After taking a hiatus from this blog for just over half a year to educate myself, and re-evaluate my mission here, I’ve decided not to delete most past blog posts, but will update the ones that need updating. Any updates will reflect the fact that I have finally come to understand that any focus on weight loss will always ultimately, sometimes after a brief round of ‘success’, end in disappointment and psychological torment. Repeating the cycle again and again turns out to be needless torment.
Having worked with hundreds of clients to date, I can confidently assert that one of the most often stated goals is that of weight loss. Of which I’m sure comes as no surprise to you – in fact, you may be one of the majority who is also wishing to see the number on the scale drop. And in all honesty, until earlier last year (spring 2018), while I felt adequately equipped to help runners reach any health or performance goal (as evidenced by overwhelming client success), helping them lose body fat in a lasting long-term manner was one I had less confidence in. This was mainly due to the fact that I’d never been able to healthfully and sustainably attain what I honestly felt was my own “ideal weight”.
Please note I put “ideal weight” in quotations because honestly, where do we pull these goal numbers from? Weight is not necessarily a determining factor in performance… In fact I’ve seen plenty of runners perform better / run faster an extra 5-10 lbs over what they ‘thought’ their racing weight was. Interestingly the number I finally landed on is nearly 10 lbs heavier than what my much younger self thought I ‘should’ be at.
Anyway, I’ve also – even while eating well much of the time over the past 7 years – always had a tendency to use food as a reward. Such as:
- I just completed a long training run, so I deserve this glass of wine (or two or three) and that brownie.
- I just ran my goal race after months of hard training, therefore I can eat all the pizza and drink all the wine and beer (what can I say, I enjoy both).
- I just finished a 100 miler (!!!), so I can eat cinnamon buns for a week (or five weeks… But who’s counting?!).
When I started running 17 years ago, in 2002, I used running as my excuse to eat all the food and drink all the alcohol. I would “run to eat”. Having essentially picked up running to help me quit smoking (although here’s the full story of why I started running), clearly I was in a much healthier place and thus had zero desire (for the time being) to pay any attention to my food choices.
Then in 2012, I had a revelationary experience when I resolved to put the focus on nourishing my body and I essentially began to “eat to run” (thus sparking my company name Eat 2 Run). That’s when I ran (my 10th marathon) over 25 minutes faster than I’d ever run a marathon before (nabbing a 3:33) and qualified for Boston all in one swoop.
Suffice to say, I was on to something.
Also suffice to say learning HOW to properly nourish ones body can take a long time to truly dial in on.
So still, my pudgy-ish belly stuck around. My arms chaffed me on long runs. My thighs sometimes too. I knew I was mostly eating really good, nourishing food and my marathons continued to fall between 3:30 to 3:40, so I simply resolved that this was me and to get over myself. The only time I’d seen abs (kind of) was when I’d literally starved myself and ended up with bulimia (ah yes, the year of 2006), and heaven knows I would never, ever go there again.
But then when I would work with clients whose main goal was weight loss, I continued to feel inept as I struggled with the little voice inside of me suggesting I had yet to find my own optimal body composition. So I ignored it. But ignoring an issue is never the best strategy…
I’d been ignoring many other issues too. So in what initially seemed like really bad luck but for then for a time I chose to think of as divine intervention – I broke my foot. It’s often said we grow stronger, not from when life is easy, but through traumatic events.
Initially I did not care to ‘grow’ or ‘learn’ – instead I simply mourned my inability to run. After nearly 2 months of feeling sorry for myself and abusing my body terribly with food and wine, I finally understood that this was an opportunity. And finally, I chose to take it.
In the past, whenever I’d decided to make better choices, the motivation at least partially included weight loss – and because I wanted it as fast as possible, the strategies were always somewhat hardcore, shall we say. We live in a world where once we decide we want something, we want it yesterday. I bought in to that world. But with a broken foot that was clearly going to take months to heal, I had time to be patient.
Turns out patience is a key principle I’ve long admired – but at the time was drastically short on. I also knew embodying patience was something I ultimately really wanted (today I strive to embody the principle of patience without even thinking about it).
So I got to work. I outlined for myself a nutrition and supplement plan for healing (gratefully, it worked – I was back to running very quickly thereafter, running a 50k only 5.5 months after initially breaking my foot… you can read that story here). And, within my healing plan, it’s true, I embedded a “side plan” for fat loss (read: slight deprivation through adhering to a LCHF manner of eating). If EVER it was going to happen, I resolved now was the time.
Because here’s the thing, when we nourish our bodies, everything goes right. Healing happens. Weight loss (if needed) happens. Energy happens. Things move in the right direction. Everything works.
When we nourish our bodies, they work for us, to become the best version of themselves. It is only us and the choices we make that stand in the way.
When we choose to nourish our bodies (and I don’t mean just through food/drink), an amazing thing happens. Our ideal self emerges – rather slowly to be sure, particularly by todays standards, but it does happen.
With my newfound tool called patience, I decided I would give myself basically as long as it took. And if it never happened, that was okay (fat loss, that is – I must say I was hell bent on healing my broken bone as fast as humanly possible).
I must also point out that while I was trying to manipulate my body to lose weight, I also let that goal go. You could say I held it loosely. Basically, I detached any self-worth from it. I resolved to be okay (happy even) if zero weight loss happened. I didn’t allow myself to get emotionally wrapped up in this desire.
At that time, I made the choice to simply accept my body just as it was and resolved to work on actually literally loving and respecting myself just as I was (not just give lip service to ‘self-love’ and ‘self-acceptance’ but actually try to live it)… All the while committing to be the best version of myself.
This did NOT mean saying:
“I love myself just as I am therefore I’ll eat/drink whatever I want or am craving and I’ll do whatever I feel like doing or makes me happy in this moment.
It doesn’t matter what I look like or how much body fat I have, because I love myself and so I’ll just enjoy myself.”
No, not at all. To me it meant:
“I love and respect myself so much that I commit to nourishing not only my body, but my body, mind and soul – taking care of and nourishing them the best way I know how. Much of which won’t always feel easy in the moment, but all of which will result in the best version of myself, which will ultimately bring greater ease and joy into my life.
It doesn’t matter what I look like or how much body fat I have, because I love myself enough to give myself the respect of learning how I can take care of and nourish my body, mind and spirit in the best ways possible for me personally.”
My starting point was a percentage number that was much higher than I’d anticipated. And if the best version of myself weighed xxx lbs and was xx% body fat, then I would be okay with that. I would be okay with that because I’d also know I would be actively honouring my body, mind and soul by nourishing them the best way I knew how (and I committed myself to continued learning). To me at that time, this meant strict avoidance of inflammatory and nutrient-poor food/drink as well as of course incorporating all the nutrient-rich and anti-inflammatory nutrients, and I worked hard at becoming even more fat adapted (via LCHF) – but soon I’d learn it also meant so much more.
I knew my starting point was xx% body fat because on April 6th 2018, a week after my 39th birthday, I went and got a professional body composition reading done at Body Comp Imaging – a DEXA scan (the most reliable way to determine body fat percentage). The data told me I had too much fat around my middle (visceral fat) and okay bone density. Given my couple times per week wine habit and frequent food indulgences (emotional eating) over the past 2 months I wasn’t necessarily surprised. And knowing I’d very much so NOT been nourishing my body, I was fairly confident I’d see a change in numbers come July.
I must say I was none to pleased when Peter (the very knowledgeable technician who runs Body Comp Imaging) pointed out my visceral fat (belly fat). Particularly given my profession (there’s a certain pressure to look the role, probably entirely self-imposed although certainly society celebrates 6-pack abs and not so much the pillow tops). This gave me further resolve to properly nourish my body – at least move the fat away from where it’s cited to be most dangerous to our health!
And here comes the consistency part you all knew was coming. Day in and day out, I followed the plan I’d outlined for myself. I’d done exactly what I do for clients to give them a good idea where to start, and outlined a “Menu Breakdown” for myself – one day in the life of me detailing the exact nutrient dense foods and amounts (supposedly) required to meet my caloric and macro targets, divided into appropriate meals and snacks. I was without a doubt eating less calories than my body required.
I’d also like to mention here that I ate 90% dark chocolate every single day – despite the calorie deprivation, I definitely worked chocolate into my daily menu! But really, the most important thing to note here, is that I followed my plan, with it’s macro targets, day in and day out… For the next 3 months with very little deviation. I was very consistent.
Three full months went by, and on July 6 I returned for my second DEXA scan. I was feeling very good – in fact, I’d just completed my 50k run on my healed foot the week before! I weighed in a xxx lb (a 3.6 lb loss), with xx% body fat (a 2.5 % loss) and while I’d ditched x lbs of fat, I’d gained x lbs of muscle. So all in all, very positive results.
But how many of you are thinking you’d be ecstatic with a 3½ lb weight loss after 3 full months of following a very specific food plan?
No, not many of you would be. I know this because I’ve worked with many people on weight loss, and we all want more. I know this because the ‘old’ me would have been crushed, upset and angry that after SO MUCH WORK for THREE FULL MONTHS the scale had hardly budged.
It’s true, no one has ever come to me and told me they’d like to lose three and half pounds please. And I’ve rarely seen clients pleased with a 3.5 lb drop in weight. Additionally it’s common for me to only work with clients for 3-4 months. Which actually isn’t enough time to see true, lasting weight loss.
But contrary to the me of previous years, this ‘new’ me was thrilled. Peter also told me my bone density had improved to ‘above average’ which I was also very pleased with. I walked out of there with only a continued resolve to nourish my body. If this was going to be ‘as good as it got’, I was happy.
But I was also not done trying for more. For another three and half months, I continued to follow my outline but with more flexibility. I relaxed it a bit as I learned to really tune into what my body was trying to tell me it needed. I adjusted it here and there but no longer followed it as rigidly. Although my change in numbers had not been dramatic, I really did feel like the direction I was taking was working and so I continued with it.
And then on October 19, I ended up back at Body Comp Imaging for my third DEXA scan. While there was no further change in bone density, I weighed in at xxx lbs (a 9.5 lb weight loss, for a total loss of 13.1 lbs). My body fat percentage came in at xx (a 4.3% loss, for a total loss of 6.8%).
Needless to say, it was during this time that I’d really been focusing on a few other areas – non dietary areas of great importance when it comes to achieving real, lasting, healthy fat loss. So perhaps I should not have been so surprised. I do feel they were (and are) key. These additional areas included:
1. Getting daily aerobic exercise…
With some anaerobic exercise in a ratio of about 4:1, as outlined in Matt Fitzgeralds book 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower. I mention aerobic vs anaerobic exercise because it’s very important – if one walks out the door for high intensity anaerobic exercise daily they’ll cause too many stress hormones to flow through the body too often and will burn out or get injured quickly (clearly this would not be healthy or conducive to fat loss as stress hormones = fat storage).
Committing to consistent aerobic running was easy for me as I was just getting back into running after months off from breaking my foot. So unlike in the past when I had a hard time motivating myself out the door, I was thrilled to be outside running near daily again.
I also incorporated a strength routine, so that I was doing not only cardiovascular exercise (aka a lot of running!) but also building muscle and bone strength, particularly in the upper body which is obviously ignored when just running.
2. Getting enough sleep every single night…
At least 7 hours if not 8 (VERY IMPORTANT). And I’m not talking 7-8 hours in bed – I’m talking 7-8 hours ASLEEP. There’s a big difference.
I read Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker. I invested in a sleep tracker to keep me honest (a FitBit Alta HR). Not getting enough sleep (getting less than 7 hours of actual sleep each night) is extraordinarily stressful on the body.
3. Building strength of mind.
Cultivating the art of mindfulness. My mind has always been prone to falling into the traps of anxiety and depression, so this area was (and probably always will be) extremely important for me to work on.
I read (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey) and read (Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind by Sakyong Mipham) and read (The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance by George Mumford) and read (The Happiness Track: How to Apple the Science of Happiness to Accelerate your Success by Emma Seppala, PhD) and reread (First We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson) and reread (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson) and reread (May Cause Miracles by Gabrielle Bernstein) and reread (You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay).
I picked up meditation (something which I scoffed at for years – but my haughtiness got me nowhere, whereas the benefits I nearly immediately saw from it were nothing short of incredible).
I fine tuned my daily schedule.
I more less mostly avoided social media (which basically does the opposite of build strength of mind – for many people it’s a tool for distraction and mindless escape and/or destroys any semblance of self-confidence and/or is just plain a huge time-waster [that said, it can be used ‘correctly’ – kudos to those who can – I’m still working on it]).
I cannot say enough about how much incorporating these three areas alongside my nutrition plan helped me to lower overall stress levels and balance my hormones – thus lose the excess body fat I had on me. Literally for the first time in 20 years stress hormones were not constantly flowing through my body in higher than healthy amounts.
Stress hormones signal the body to store fat. If you have too many stress hormones flowing through your body regularly, the only way you’ll be able to lose fat is by starving yourself. And as I mentioned earlier, there’s no way I’d ever submit to that form of fat loss again. By decreasing the constant flow of stress hormones, not only did my body finally (near effortlessly) let go of the excess body fat, the remnants of my digestive issues faded. My skin glowed.
Even my hair (ah my baby fine hair much of which was lost back in 2002-2006, my years of starvation diets and then bulimia, and of which for years since has been the bane of my existence) seemed healthier and for the first time in years I began walking out the door without my extensions clipped in.
I can hardly begin to tell you just how freeing this entire experience has been for me. I literally had finally experienced what healthy fat loss feels like. (Please note, I crashed a few months later – often we experience a jubilant high and even heightened performance with weight loss that comes just before a decline or crash in health).
And so just after my 3rd DEXA scan, I ran my third 100-miler, Javelina Jundrend on October 28th 2018. I ran in scorching heat, and I ran it 3½ hours faster than my previous 100-miler. I crossed the finish line in just over 23 hours – earning myself the coveted sub-24 hour belt buckle. To say I was ecstatic is an understatement.
Fast forward to January 4th of this year and I was back in for my 4th DEXA scan. Learning I’d lost another 2.2 lbs of body fat was heartening (although by this point it’s likely this was bordering on too low to be healthy for me), but honestly at that point I was so darn happy with my body and my physical performance that I’d have been happy with any number – so long as I continued to look and feel and perform the way I did. (Note how I gave my happiness these certain conditions…)
Yet my journey was anything but over. I had found my “Zone”, which is where optimal performance happens according to George Mumford in The Mindful Athlete – the place of quiet focus and contentment in the middle of a chaotic life we can reach only by learning to stay in the present moment. I’d gotten exactly where I’d wanted to go.
But when I suffered the loss of my beloved fur baby on January 30th, I saw it all slip away from me. A few days later I tried to run my fourth 100-miler, but failed (however, please let me be clear that in no way do I regret pulling out). I tried to stay true to my menu and routines, but failed. First I ate nothing, and then I ate and drank in excess. I was supposed to have published this article beginning to mid-February but I was in the middle of a free fall. Sleep eluded me for weeks on end.
Which brings us to today. I am back on track. About 2 weeks ago, I was able to begin to pull myself back together on that deeper level required. I was clearly suffering from digestive issues and skin issues again. It might take weeks if not months to fully get back into my “Zone” again. And that’s okay. I’m willing to be patient.
In the meantime, I am already feeling good again – about myself and my fat loss journey amongst many other things. I have my 5th DEXA scan scheduled for April 5th, just a few weeks away now – so will get to see where exactly I sit in that regard then.
I will attempt my 5th 100-miler next week on March 29th (to celebrate my 40th birthday). I will cross the finish line of this one, of that I am quite sure (update, I crossed the finish line in 28 hours and 30 minutes). And I am still training for my first 200-miler (Tahoe 200) this September (did it, was the hardest race I’ve ever done but I crossed that finish line too), as well as a fast marathon (sub 3:30) in July (almost – nabbed a 3:30:23).
Life is a journey. We might reach a long-coveted goal – in this case, my (misguided) goal was fat loss (and I forgot to mention I was also looking to heal from my broken foot – that had actually been my main goal starting out)…
We might get to where it is we wanted to go… We might reach our “Zone” – the place where everything just comes together perfectly.
But if we haven’t been using the tools that got us there for very long or maybe we still don’t fully understand how to use them properly, we might drop them if we hit a bump. They haven’t truly become part of us yet.
I’ve been helping clients equip themselves with all the nutritional tools required for years – but as discovered last year, real and lasting success will come only once we pair the nutritional tools with lifestyle tools. That’s a lot of tools to not only hold onto daily, but also learn how to use so well we don’t drop them when the going gets tough. Because the going will get tough – that is life.
When I suffered my broken foot last January, I got deeply off track for nearly three months. This January I suffered a more profoundly devastating loss (the death of my fur baby Sparkle) and I again veered off track – but only for just under a month and not even as far off track as last year. No doubt you’ve also experienced trauma and loss yourself in life. I can only say that personally, each one leaves me with a resolve to become better equipped for when the next one comes my way.
My nutritional tools are now so deeply engrained within me that I was able to mostly hold onto them. My meals and snacks all continued to look the same. However, my newfound lifestyle tools weren’t quite ingrained deeply enough to keep me on track 100% – and this definitely resulted in an attitude of not caring. (Update, also, the slight deprivation I’d created for myself over half year ago was catching up with me. Plus I stopped eating after Sparkle died, so this was a short but intense period of deprivation.)
This attitude of not caring (and the grief I was experiencing) resulted in reaching for ‘comfort foods/drinks’ on top of my usual menu that I know messed my system up and resulted in a few weeks of excess calories consumed. Or probably more accurately, it it could have been the intense stress of grief that caused my digestive and hormonal systems to go off balance.
Initially, I couldn’t figure out how to grieve and still care at the same time. But because this time round I knew exactly which tools I needed to pick up, where to find them and mostly how to use them – I was able to get back onto track much faster than before.
Because life is a journey, we are always learning and growing. Our tool box grows, becomes more well rounded and most importantly the use of each tool becomes automatic. Instinctual almost.
And that is when “the Zone” sticks around longer and longer, becomes easier to access… Until one day (for those who take the time to cultivate the art of mindfulness and build strength of mind) it might just stick with us for good.
Things like optimal body fat are no longer a struggle to achieve or maintain. (But honestly, what our own personal healthy body fat percentage is, is a number only our body knows – it was unfair of me to have tried to manipulate the number itself when I might have better simply focused on self-care and nourishing my body. However, I was doing the best I could with what I knew to be true at that time.)
Life will never be easy. We’ll just be able to navigate through it with greater ease and clarity, and actually hold onto the states of being we desire most – in this case (most importantly, yet most likely so totally unimportantly), optimal body fat.
(Just to be clear, I now believe that holding reduction of body fat as a goal was and always will be unhealthy and misguided – but I was doing the best I could with what I knew to be true then, and that’s all I can ever ask of myself.)
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,
Sarah Cuff, R.H.N.
Holistic Sports Nutritionist
Founder Eat 2 Run Sports Nutrition
CSNN Sports Nutrition Instructor
Thank you Sarah for sharing your story and for your honesty.
Sarah, thank you for sharing your story about the outcomes you achieved by sticking to your plan! It’s inspiring to see what is possible when you set goals and commit to the daily action needed to make them a reality!
Happy Birthday Sarah! This post was truly inspiring, I’ve been feeling exactly like where you were a year ago and not quite sure where to start.
The mind, body and soul, all interconnected and it’s reaffirmed that each element needs work to get to that place of happiness and love for self.
THis is amazing! Thank you for sharing your informative journey!
Thank you for sharing your powerful message, Sarah.
I love it.