Burning Runner: Weight-Loss Lessons Learned

It’s equally surprising how simple it was: no gimmicks, no starvation, no fad diets. It’s been a simple approach, really. Train for a half marathon, go vegan and avoid junky foods and drinks. I started at 187 and at the end of last week I weighed in at 177. More important, I feel so much better than I used to feel I’m a bit annoyed I didn’t do this some time ago.

The things I have learned thus far:

  1. 1. It’s not about losing weight, it’s about getting healthy. Back in June I knew I was too heavy but it was when I came down with two colds–one of which lasted 10 days and the other two weeks–that I knew it was time to cross the river. So, in other words, I was sick most of June, not sleeping well, not feeling well, not recovering from my workouts, and I concluded diet had be a factor.  I had been blaming travel and stress at work but it didn’t add up. At first it was all about losing weight to be a faster runner. But after a week of going full blast with a healthy diet—and the weight started peeling off right away—I realized how unhealthy I had been living and feeling. Eating simple, good foods and staying away from garbage fundamentally overhauled how I felt throughout the day and how well I slept at night. It was a shocker. Rather than thinking of it as losing weight, I’m now thinking about it in terms of pursuing improved health.
  2. 2. It was not as hard as I thought it was going to be. When I flipped the switch to on—no coffee, a vegan diet, being aggressive about buying and preparing my own food—it was only rough for a couple of days. I definitely had moments where I felt unbalanced, but I didn’t crash land the way I feared I would. In fact, I felt a rush of all that the experts had promised me: more energy, better sleep and an exchange of the immediate sensation of pigging out on junk food with the far more satisfying feeling of what good food has to offer. It was a profound choice. I’m only three weeks into the new diet and my greatest fear is of going back to the old one.
  3. 3. All carbs are not created evil. Yes, carbs are bad when they’re processed carbs–white sugar, white flour, white rice, white pasta, sugar cereal–but when carbohydates come from real foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, the fiber content is high and the energy burns evenly. Because the nutrient density is higher, I’m essentially avoiding the harm of the “empty calorie.”  And when you eat brown rice pasta rather than pasta that’s had the nutrients stripped out, you don’t feel bloated after finishing a meal. You feel energized.
  4. 4. Life free of being a coffee junkie is unfathomably superior to being a slave to a coffee addiction. This has been dramatic. When I started reading about the side effects of too much coffee I didn’t thoroughly grasp how much better I would feel in leaving them all behind. I was one who said many times, “I love coffee. I need it to start my day.” Studying the subject, I realized that my love for the taste of coffee and the burst of false energy it releases was rooted in the chemical mechanics of an actual addiction. Like cigarettes. I found this thought interesting: ‘So you love the taste of coffee? Did you love it the first time you tasted it? No. Just like cigarettes or beer, the first time you tasted it you probably thought it was awful.’ But when the pleasure center of the brain gets involved the taste can be rewired to taste good to us. Leaving behind coffee meant I also left behind a wretched quality of sleep, moodiness, early afternoon energy crashes and anxiety. It was with great relief that I tossed my love of coffee overboard.
  5. 5. Being off coffee has opened up a communication channel with my true sense of hunger. Another benefit to not drinking coffee is that I’m more in tune with my blood sugar levels. For breakfast I’m typically eating a blow of steel-cut oatmeal, a fruit smoothie with strawberries, bananas, blueberries, almond milk, and brown rice toast with almond butter. Plenty of fuel in this breakfast but at about 11 AM I can feel the tank starting to dry. At night, while cooking dinner, I’ve been preparing the next day’s lunch (leftovers from the main dish, a vegetable salad and a fruit salad) so I’m in good shape when the blood sugar levels drop and I need a solid lunch to power me through the remainder of the workday. Before I was paying attention to the rise and fall of my energy per what caffeine was doing to my body and my sense of hunger was off-center.
  6. 6. The key to wiping out addictions to poor food is to lock my diet into vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and healthy oils. It’s not about restricting. It’s about supplanting the bad stuff with good stuff, and reconnecting what tastes good to you from immediate pleasure to a sustained feeling of well-being.
  7. 7. My anecdotal notes suggest that eating the diet mentioned in #7 accelerates recovery from long runs. You never know about this stuff—what works for me won’t necessarily be the case for anyone else, but I feel I’m seeing the anti-inflammatory benefits that good foods have to offer. I feel remarkably less creaky than I used to. Perhaps this is also related to lower stress hormones in my body when I’m sleeping (a specific benefit of being caffeine free).
  8. 8. Never be shy about seeking out support. I’ve always been stubborn on this one: I’m the guy driving in circles who refuses to ask for directions. I’ve wised up. I’m working with a running coach through an online service—Greg McMillan—and a personal trainer whose guided me into the world of functional and core strength development appropriate for distance running (Frank Alveraz, 24-hour Fitness). I’ve also picked up a number of vegan diet books to learn how to cook super-healthy food that tastes good. This is what I’ve learned: 1. direct support provides teaching so that you do things right the first time and 2. accountability (so there is accountability). Signing up with a coach or trainer means you’re not only going to get great information, there will no longer be room to procrastinate.

  9. The Army of Champions Track Club takes on the Chicago Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon. Left to right, T.J. Murphy, Oliver Baker, Kevin LaClaire, Erin Ream, Bridget Durkin.
    The Army of Champions Track Club takes on the Chicago Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon. Left to right, T.J. Murphy, Oliver Baker, Kevin LaClaire, Erin Ream, Bridget Durkin.

    9. Keep it fun. Distance running is known to be about as individual of a sport as they come, but that’s not true. Look at cross-country—it’s a running sport organized around the team concept. Anyone who’s ever been on a cross-country squad knows how friendships get forged. So I consider myself lucky to have joined up with a group from work—Bridget Durkin, Oliver Baker, Erin Ream and Kevin LaClaire—founding members of the Army of Champions Track Club (we owe the title to Dwight Schrute from the TV show “The Office.”) We all raced the Chicago Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon together (everyone finished and everyone celebrated at a roof top bar in downtown Chicago) and the team vibe has made the whole thing a blast. Our next stop as a team is the Zappos.com Rock n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon. We seek PRs across the board!


T.J. Murphy is a contributing editor to Competitor and the Editorial Director of Triathlete and Inside Triathlon magazines. Previous installments of his Burning Runner column can be read here. He can be reached by e-mail at burningrunner@gmail.com.

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