I’m bucking the trend here for a change, rather than a technical post on the details of triathlon, I’m writing this out of a sense of frustration of the messages that are peddled by major fitness brands, gyms, and some personal trainers; often preying on the fears and insecurities of people to sell their products. This post is the equivalent of a ski resort manager shouting at an avalanche to stop in its tracks, but I hope it has enough of an impact on those who read it to feel better about themselves, make informed decisions, and save themselves a lot of money. As a disclaimer, I’m going to be focusing on areas we can control with exercise, not wading into the world of anti ageing or plastic surgery as while I certainly have opinions on it, it’s well beyond my scope of understanding.
As a triathlon coach, I’ve never had anyone come to me with body related goals. Clients have said they’re carrying a bit of extra timber they’re looking to shift, but nobody has ever come to me saying they want to drop a dress size, hit a target weight or build muscle. Why might this be? While I can’t say for certain, I believe it’s because by the time athletes come to me they already run, cycle or swim, and have gained body confidence through this.
If you look at fitness models there is a very strong theme setting expectations for us, lots of people will look at the front cover of mainstream fitness magazines and believe that is what they should be aspiring to. However I want you to take a moment to think about watching the Olympics, think about a 100M runner compared to a marathon runner, a high jump athlete compared to a shot putter, a road cyclist compared to a track sprinter, a boxer compared to a marathon swimmer. Do you think the shot putter wants to look like the marathon runner? Does the cyclist lie awake at night wishing they looked like a boxer?
We all have things we aren’t 100% happy with about our bodies, but we need to remember that our body serves a purpose, and there is no perfect body. Do you think the cover star of a running magazine would last a round in the ring? Can a bodybuilder leg press as much as a track cyclist? No, these models are aspirational figures who have sculpted their bodies to match what will get them the gigs and Instagram followers they need, and they’ve shown remarkable dedication in doing so, but do you think they see themselves plastered across a centre spread and believe they look the a Greek god? No, the chances are they’re cringing at their small shoulder muscles, wishing they had more definition in their abs, it becomes a game of whack a mole where they’re constantly shifting their training to give them the body they want, and who am I to judge them if it makes them happy and earns them a living?
However, not all of us have the time or the body type to meet these stereotypes. I’ve been careful not to point fingers at anyone or use any images so far as I don’t want it to seem like I’m shaming or bullying anyone, but there is someone I feel I’m in a position to judge and rip it out of mercilessly.
So here I am taking part in my last middle distance triathlon, is this an image you’ll ever find in a magazine? No it’s not for various reasons, but I’m sure you can all see I’m in possession of a fine pair of noodle arms. However, those who know about triathlon will notice that I’m the only person in this shot which is unusual, that’s because I was in third place at this point.
Yes I have some of the skinniest arms you’ll ever see, but I still managed to swim faster than the vast majority of other swimmers, and can get round a 1900M swim course quicker than 99.9% of the population. So do I really need to worry about getting bigger biceps? By sitting in the gym and doing bicep curls I would gain some extra muscle definition, the ladies might like it, but it would slow me down on the bike as I’d be carrying extra weight, for an extremely small benefit in the swim. So should I be ashamed of my skinny arms? They propelled me to 3rd place out of the water, they were some of the finest arms in Lincolnshire that day!
The point I want to push home is to focus on functionality, worry less about what your body looks like, and worry more about what it can do. If you want to feel better about your body, start training it to do something exceptional that you can be proud of, rather than worrying about what it looks like in the mirror.
However when I was 21 and I did no exercise do you think I looked in the mirror and was proud of my body? Absolutely not, it was the result of a process, here are a few guides to making the most of this process:
‘You are what you eat’, is the phrase parroted by nutritionists, personal trainers and mums across the world, however there are few things people over complicate more than nutrition. The golden rule here is everything in moderation, don’t think of good foods and bad foods, think of good diets and bad diets. Don’t get drawn into the hype surrounding different diets and the pseudo science surrounding them, you don’t need to worry about micro analysing your diet unless you are looking to perform at a VERY high (world class) level.
The key to a healthy diet is quite simple, eat 5 portions of fresh fruit and veg a day, don’t go overboard on the saturated/trans fats, cut out the fast food and ensure you are getting some protein in every meal. If you tie yourself into a strict diet you’ll find yourself lacking energy and willpower to train, which will have a far greater impact on speed on race day. If you consider yourself to be overweight this should solve itself with training, which brings me to my next point.
Developing a healthy relationship with exercise
Do you despise getting out of bed at 5AM for a 6AM gym class? Do you hate every moment of your weekly run? Is there anywhere you’d rather be than sat in an air conditioned gym pumping iron? Then do yourself a favour and find something you enjoy. If you dread something you’ll find any excuse not to do it, and you’ll never find a way to improve. When I first started swimming in 2012 I had a terrible time of things, I panicked in my first events, coming out of the water in the bottom 10%, but I enjoyed it and wanted to improve, I kept chipping away until in 2018 I won my first swimming event.
So don’t expect instant success in what you do, but if you enjoy the process the results will follow. Take time off when your body tells you to, make an effort to be social in your chosen sport, and you’ll turn into what you used to refer to as a “fitness freak”, which in hindsight was simply someone with a passion and drive for something beyond Netflix and beer. Enjoy the process and the results will follow.
Don’t get sucked in by marketing
Selling products that promise a shortcut to your dream body is like shooting fish in a barrel. people will spend huge amounts of money on supplements, equipment and recovery products endorsed by social media influencers that do very little beyond lighten your wallet, they prey on those with little time and a high disposable income. I’m not saying these products are useless, but they’re no substitute for hard work. You can’t spend 30 minutes spinning away on the gym bikes, take a wonder supplement and expect to see results. Brands like to over complicate simple things to trick you into buying their products, there is nothing their products do that real food can’t, you’re paying for the convenience and marketing.
Don’t track weight
Weight fluctuates a lot on a day to day as well as hour to hour basis. Weighing yourself first thing in the morning after using the toilet compared to straight after dinner can yield very different results, I once weighed in at 49KG the day after a very hot triathlon!
Weight doesn’t take muscle mass into account either, you can be making great improvements in your fitness yet actually gaining weight due to an increase in muscle mass. It’s much more inspiring to dip under 30 minutes for 5K or to cycle 20 miles for the first time than to become a slave to the bathroom scales.
If you really want to track your weight, use a system such as Boditrax, which I use intermittently out of curiosity. The below reading tells you all you need to know about using weight as a way to track fitness.
If I was just looking at the bathroom scales I would see that I’d gained half a kilo, this would be incredibly disappointing considering the amount of training I’d been doing, but look a little closer, my fat percentage has dropped and my muscle mass has increased, I weigh more because I have more muscle mass.
To conclude, the way to improve your body confidence is to make the most of it, to do things you never thought possible, and see your body for what it is, a powerful tool rather than a mannequin.