Detour by Shannon Kokoska

Things Don’t Always Go As Planned

I’m sad to report that I’m taking a break from Crossfit. I’ve had a nagging elbow injury that hasn’t improved (even after 2 months of rest), so it’s off to the doctors for MRIs and all that good stuff. The early diagnosis looks like probably tendonitis and a little arthritis in both elbows, and a partial tear on the left (the one that hasn’t gotten any better). So, more doctors, and a break from Crossfit.

I have “injured” my elbow twice since starting Crossfit. I didn’t consider either instance severe enough to label them injuries at the time, but apparently, they were. The first was my very first workout – the “try it for free” day, before I signed up. I did 40-some-odd push-ups that day (after not having done that many pushups, well, ever), and for 3 weeks after that, I could not do push-ups due to sharp pains in my elbow and bicep. The pain subsided, and once it did, I went back to including push-ups in my workouts. A couple months later, I had a great workout that included push-ups – one of the first workouts where I really felt strong, and I did great on the push-ups… and the next morning, I woke up to find my elbow had swollen to the size of a melon, and I couldn’t move my arm. That was about 4 months ago, and while the swelling subsided, I’ve had chronic pain in my elbow ever since. I can’t do push-ups, or lift anything heavy with that arm alone, or do any barbell move with a snatch grip, or unplug my hair dryer. I need to get it fixed.

Things don’t always go as planned. I hope to return to Crossfit. I love the barbell and I love the camaraderie. I hate the thought that my body might not be capable of doing all of the things I want to do in my mind.

For now, it’s back to running (and my ongoing struggle with my hatred of hills, which, in Virginia, are actually mountains).


Translating Crossfit’s Fitness

Before I started Crossfit, I did a lot of reading about it. One anecdote that came up over and over was how people would give up running or swimming or biking in favor of Crossfit, and then successfully complete a race in that sport with no specific training. I’ve read several tales of people running half marathons without training for the races – just doing Crossfit. They all seemed like tall tales to me.

I can’t speak to any long-distance efforts, but a couple of recent experiences are leading me to believe that those stories might be true after all.

I started Crossfit 4 months ago, in October. In the 3 months prior, I was a gluttonous lump on a log. And for the year or so before that, I was working out 3 times a week – running and swimming throughout 2013, but tapering to less intense things like long-distance walking by mid-2014 (5-9 mile walks). When I started Crossfit, I was completely out of shape in terms of strength and cardio endurance.

Until last week, I hadn’t done any workouts in the past 4 months outside of Crossfit. I’ve only recently started to feel a bit stronger and able to survive the metcon WODs. When snow buried me in for a few days and closed the gym, I got a bit stir crazy.

So I walked down to my apartment’s gym to go for a run. My plan was to run 1 minute, walk 1 minute, for a mile. I warmed up and then started to run, and much to my surprise, I felt pretty good. I ran the mile straight through. 13:29.

That was Feb 21, 2015. The last time I ran a mile was March 1, 2014. My pace a year ago? 14:07/mi.

I dug back a little deeper, since that March 1 run was a bit of a fluke, tucked into a bunch of weeks of swimming. What was my most recent pace, when I was running regularly?

I had to go back to the summer of 2013, when I was running mostly 2 and 3 milers. They paced like this:

Running pace data from the summer of 2013

Running pace data from the summer of 2013

My current 13:29/mi looked pretty spot on, compared to a year and a half ago when I was running regularly. Even more wild – I weighed 20-30 pounds less that summer than I do now.

Could Crossfit alone have given me back my running legs and lungs? It sure looks like it.

Today, I decided to go for a swim. Work prevented me from getting in my third Crossfit workout this week, and my ankle is a bit sore from a slip on ice in the parking lot a few days ago. I figured swimming would be less stressful on the ankle than running, so I headed to the pool.

My last swim was July 15, 2014 – more than 7 months ago.

I swam 1600 yards breaststroke today. That’s my typical swim distance, and it typically takes me about an hour. My pace today was 3:11/100yds – 56:01.

My pace last July? 3:20/100yds.

Last July, I was on-again, off-again with swimming. I swam 3x/week from November through March, took April off, swam in May, took June off, and swam in July. As I compared today’s pace to July, I got curious. How would today’s pace compare to the months when I was very consistently swimming?

I had to go back to December 2013 to find when I was doing breaststroke regularly, and here’s what it looked like:

Swimming pace data, winter 2013

Swimming pace data, winter 2013

3:08 to 3:30/100 yards. So today’s 3:11 pace over 56:01 looks to be on the fitter end of things!

All from Crossfit?

There’s really no other explanation, because that’s all I’ve been doing the past 4 months.

It feels really good to finally be (slowly) transitioning to the point where I don’t feel like I’m dying in every workout. Near-death, maybe! But my lungs are finally starting to catch up, and that’s opening up more options for me.

I love a lot of things about Crossfit – namely, the community, the barbell work, and overall intensity and efficiency of it. I do think, though, that I will continue to run and swim. I doubt I’ll do any more long-distance running (it’s just not an efficient use of my time as a slow-poke), but I’d like to get back into running 5Ks and 10Ks.

There are 2 things I miss about running and swimming, compared to Crossfit:

1) choosing my own music

2) the long, slow, less intense work that lets me zone out and think

I knew I’d miss the solitude (I really do enjoy working out alone), but I didn’t expect to miss the long slog! I wouldn’t give up Crossfit for either of those things, but I think I’ll find the best version of myself in some combination of them all.

I have to say – I’m still quite shocked by the numbers. I’m performing just as well at two cardio-centric sports with zero recent sport-specific training as I was when training them regularly, at a much lighter weight.

I’ve got Rocktown Crossfit to thank for that!


purple smoothie

I Have Big Plans

I have big plans…. for an awesome cooking update?! Ummm, no. What can I say? I’ve eaten Jimmy John’s no fewer than 6 times in the past two weeks. I’m in a post-vacation lazy-in-the-kitchen rut. Or maybe it’s a pre-back-to-work cooking-is-too-much-like-work state of avoidance.

At any rate, I do have big plans – for running. This week, I cross into what I consider the official “long run” part of my half marathon training plan. To me, any run longer than 5 miles is not-messing-around, and once you pass the 7 mile mark, it’s official: you’re running long. This week’s schedule has a big ol’ 8 miler at the end.

My big plans involve 2 things: checking out a new trail that appears to have minimal hills and restrooms & water fountains along the way, and adding a running-specific Camelbak to my arsenal of gear.

The trail is the Hawksbill Greenway in Luray, VA. It’s about 45 minutes north of me, but considering how miserable I was last fall running the local hills, I’ll endure the drive. It’s actually quite similar to the drive I used to do in Chicago to get out to the awesome Danada trails in Naperville. It looks like Hawksbill is somewhere between 3-4 miles long and is a combination of a looping trail and an out-and-back. Perfect. I love out-and-backs. The I&M Canal Trail spoiled me so much in that regard.

The Camelbak is an upgrade to the couple Camelbaks I already own. I’m not sure if the Camelbak Marathoner is a new model, or if I just didn’t do my research well enough a few years back when I bought my current model, but one of the most frustrating parts of racing with my standard Camelbak is that I have to unclip it and literally take it off in order to access the storage pouch. When you need to eat some beans or gels during a race, that’s just not acceptable. It really slowed me down and drove me crazy during my last 2 long races, not to mention all of the long training runs leading up to the races. (Honestly, I tended to use it as an excuse to stop and sit down for a minute while taking the pack off to get to my fuel… bad, bad, bad!) The Marathoner is more of a vest than a backpack, with storage on the front straps for easy access to fuel. It’s not cheap at a cool hundo, but I had a $50 gift card to spend (huzzah!).

I’m also going to be trying some new fuel, one that did not exist last fall – Vega Sport Endurance Gel. I was already a fan of Vega Sport; they’ve discontinued the energy drink I used to use as my pre-long-run fuel, but it looks like there’s a new (and much fuller) line of endurance products now. My local Friendly City food co-op had the gels in stock, so I grabbed a couple to try out this week. They’re whole-food gels – plant based and all natural, with no HFCS or maltodextrin. Since I’m a pretty darn slow runner (even slower this time around, as I’m focusing on heart rate training instead of speed), I need to refuel during shorter distances than some runners. This 8-miler is going to take me somewhere around 2 hours, since 6.5 miles took me 1:36 last week. They say you should refuel every 30-45 minutes for workouts lasting more than 75 minutes, and I tend to err on the side of caution these days when it comes to fueling. Bonking is no fun.

So, those are my big plans! I’m going on a big long run. Wish me luck!

Asics running shoes


I love the Olympics, particularly the summer Olympics. I obsessed over Mary Lou Retton and gymnastics as a kid – even tried my hand at it, with mortifying results. Me – I’m not the most graceful or coordinated person on the planet. (understatement of the century). I marveled over divers, but never managed much of an impersonation. Turns out, while I’m not afraid of heights, I’m not the biggest fan of jumping from them.

More recently, I’ve turned my attention toward the track events. I was up early, glued to the TV to cheer on Kara Goucher and Shalane Flannigan in the women’s Olympic marathon. I’ve grown to love their stories and appreciate their efforts and applaud their accomplishments. Of all the sports I’ve tried, the one I’ve had some success with is running – not by winning races (though I did place 2nd in my age group in a 5K last summer!), but by simply managing to run and enjoy it and not break any bones.

The first two years I spent running (2010 and 2011), I was running to lose weight. It worked. I lost 107 pounds, but burned myself out. 2012 did not start off well, and this past spring, as I laced up my running shoes again, I was doing so with an extra 25 pounds on me. I signed up for a fall half marathon, figuring the training would get me back into shape.

But this time around, I’m not dieting as much as I had intended to. I’m eating clean, but not necessarily cutting calories. The scale isn’t moving, but I feel stronger. Still, I’ve been beating myself up a little bit, as if I’m wasting my training efforts by not dieting.

There’s something wrong with that mentality. If exercise is inextricably tied to weight loss, it will never stick as a healthy, permanent habit – even after years of cranking out the miles every week.

There’s an Olympic ad campaign from Nike that encourages everyday people to find their greatness. When I saw the one with the overweight kid running down a farm road, it struck me.

Part of me was proud of that kid for getting out there and doing it. Of course, the part of me that fights self consciousness and low self esteem thought, “I wonder if he’s embarrassed, with the world watching him,” because that’s how I feel these days when I go for a run. This extra weight, while still at least 80 pounds lighter than my heaviest, weighs me down. I’m not comfortable in my skin right now. Living in the same town where I work only compounds my fears of running into someone I know. It’s ridiculous, I know.

Then, I came across this blog post: I Am Not a Skinny Triathlete. It’s a post by a woman who had previously trained for races to lose weight, and as the new year started, decided to stop chasing skinny, buy bigger clothes, and keep racing triathlons anyway. 10 weeks or so into my own not-skinny race training, I’ve come to some of the same realizations as the author. Because I’m not cutting calories, I feel better fueled and stronger in my workouts. I still have power in my legs, and as I’m growing more experienced, I know how to use it.

I haven’t accomplished the complete shift in mindset required to fully appreciate training and racing for the fun of it, without the weight loss strings attached. But now that I recognize the difference, I might just be a step closer to finding my own greatness.

Valley 4th Run 5K

Valley 4th 5K

7 months off of racing… that’s what my “break” ended up being. My last race was the Blue & Gray Half Marathon in Fredericksburg, VA in December 2011. Here we are… July 2011… starting over, in a way.

I ran the Valley 4th 5K run yesterday in Harrisonburg, VA. It was a sweaty good time – but first, a note to self: do not get your hair dyed red the day before a 90-degree race unless you want your new white tech tee to become swirly pink.

I went into this race planning to continue with the heart-rate-training, and run it the way I plan to run my next half – with Galloway’s run/walk interval approach. I’ve been running 2/1 run/walk intervals (minutes) the past 2 weeks, but figured for the sake of racing I’d kick it up to 4/1 intervals – monitoring my heart rate all the way and attempting to stay around my sweet spot of 167bpm during the run intervals. At this point in my training, that still means pretty slow running (about a 12:30/mi pace). Unfortunately, the late race start (9am versus the more typical 8am) led to a pretty steamy climate (already in the 80’s, but without the luxury of the evening humidity burn-off). My heart rate was through the roof 2 minutes into the race.

So, I decided to stick to my intervals and run it anyway, even though running had my heart rate up around 180bpm. I did discover a new max heart rate 🙂 Last year, I had discovered my max to be 191bpm. Yesterday, I topped out at 192bpm. I still use 190bpm for purposes of calculating my target zones. Good to know the ticker is rockin’ out for my age, though.

With the heat and my known penchant for both fainting and heat exhaustion, I had a strong mantra in my head for this race:

Don’t be stupid. Don’t be stupid. Don’t be stupid.

Translation: When your heart gets above 185, WALK. I don’t care if you’re in the middle of a run interval. Slow the #^$& down.

I had to invoke my Don’t Be Stupid walks three times, on uphills.

Despite my intentionally slow pace and my walk intervals, this still wasn’t my slowest 5K ever. (It was my 3rd slowest, of 9). I fully expect that my run intervals will get faster as I get back into running shape. I hope to also get a little faster at my walk intervals as time goes on.

My times:

43:06 (3.13mi), 13:46/mi

Finished 195/217. Unfortunately, the time keepers didn’t provide age group or gender stats for the whole field, and official times were gun times, not chip times. Boo. Still, it was a surprisingly good race. The route was fairly easy (at least for this area), and they had a sprinkler set up on Main St along with one water stop (that we passed twice in the 5K). There were a couple bands playing on different corners, and post-race goodies included water, bananas, and bagels. Not bad for a little local race. It was a choose-your-charity race, so I ran to support the Rockingham/Harrisonburg SPCA.

Running for a finish is such a different animal than running for a time goal. You have to take your ego out of the equation, because a whole lot of people are going to be passing you up! That’s always been true for me (I’ve never been fast – my best 5K to date was 32:17), but starting over like I am puts me back at the rear of the pack again. You just have to have a plan and stick to it and trust the process. This race was a stepping stone to something much bigger, and I feel so much more comfortable and happy out there doing intervals. This feels like the right way to re-enthuse myself about running, and so far, it’s working.

16 weeks until my next half marathon! 🙂

Run, Run, Run

In 2010 and 2011, I ran a lot of races – lots of 5Ks, a couple 10K’s, a half marathon, and a 25K. In 2012, so far, not so much. My last race was the half marathon this past December. A new job, a new city, a sick pet (RIP, Goose!), and – well – some burnout on running led me to take the spring off.

I started lacing up my running shoes again a couple weeks ago with one major adjustment to my routine: cross training. The past two years, I had very good intentions about cross training, and sometimes did very well at going to my yoga class. Other cross training attempts were half hearted at best. It was just easier to get out there and run. There are numerous benefits to cross training, including injury prevention, improved fitness, and (surprise!) burnout prevention, but even knowing this, I kept on running running running.

This time around, I’m incorporating the elliptical and bicycling into my routine, and am enjoying both. I’m also considering another tweak to my fitness routine: heart rate monitor training.

A couple springs ago, my friend Chris and I were signed up for a 5K. It was the first hot day of spring – out of the blue, really – and nary a half mile into the race, I had to pull off to the side and put my head between my legs for fear of passing out. My Garmin said my heart rate was at 191. Having seen the heart rate charts, I knew that was higher than the charts even said my heart should go for my age. I was happy to see my ticker could beat the charts, but knew I had to slow down. I was in no shape to be spending time up in my max heart rate zone. That’s best left to uber athletes.

Back then, I was conscious of my heart rate but generally ignored heart rate training advice. While I don’t buy into the whole “fat burning zone” concept (preferring instead to emphasize total calories burned – which will almost always be more at the end of the day if you’re working out at higher intensities), there are different benefits to being conscious of when you’re working out in an aerobic versus an anaerobic zone. Muscles behave differently. Strength develops differently. There are differences between training for stamina/endurance and training for speed. I generally ignored all of that, opting to just run as fast as I possibly could.

I’m not a natural athlete, so running the way I’ve done it in the past generally keeps me at a heart rate around 175-180. For me, that’s an anaerobic zone (pushing max!). In retrospect, logic dictates that if I had backed off a bit and trained a zone lower (say, a heart rate of 155-167 for me), I might have developed better endurance that would have allowed me, over time, to run faster at that same heart rate. Sure, I did get to the point where I ran long races, but I can’t help wonder if I could go even farther by paying closer attention to my heart rate.

So, that’s what I am going to do. Somewhere around here, my trusty heart rate monitor strap is begging to be washed (oy, stinky!). It’s time for a new plan.

The most logical approach I’ve read so far is to run as long as you can keep your heart rate at the top end of zone 3 (70-80%) (167 for me), and if you go over, walk until your heart rate is back down to the low end of the zone (155 for me). Rinse, repeat. That’s going to require me to run pretty darned slow, but the premise is that as your oxygen delivery systems improve and muscle performance improves, you’ll be able to run faster at that same level of heart exertion.

Then, you mix up your training days with some hard days, where you shoot for 85% of your max heart rate (173 for me). By these numbers, in the past, I was always training hard. Time to mix it up!

If you’d like to figure out your training zones, the Heart Rate Calculator is a good one. Input your resting heart rate and your max heart rate, and it calculates your zones. (Take your resting heart rate upon waking, before you get out of bed – take your pulse for 10 seconds, then multiply by 6). You can use a max heart rate formula to figure out your max rate, or test it yourself – see the Heart Rate Training article.

So, that’s my plan for the summer. Get back on the roads and trails, and eat my greens! Do any of you have experience with heart rate training? Any advice or resources to share?

One Hundred Push-Ups

One hundred pushups, aka, Lost My Mind.

But not really. There’s this program called One Hundred Pushups that, as the name implies, intends to get you from the state of wimpy human to that of uber human that can do 100 pushups – all in a time span of 6 weeks.

While I wouldn’t mind being uber-human, I’m really just looking for a down and dirty, quick upper body strength routine. (Bonus! Pushups are good for the core, too). I’ve always slacked at upper body strength training. I convince myself that running is plenty, while frowning at my wimpy arms.

So, to complement my return to the gym and running/cycling/ellipticalling (?), I’m going to take a stab at the hundred pushups plan.

Initial test: 17 pushups, girl style. (Will go for the whole enchilada if I manage to get to 100 girlie ones!)

Seems like a depressing start, but the site assures me I’m normal. (Most people start out in level 2 [6-14] or level 3 [15-29]).

With that, Week 1 starts tomorrow! Who wants to join me?

Acknowledging Stress

We all have those days… those weeks… those months. Heck, I recall having a couple of “those years” along the way – times when things just don’t seem to go your way, and you find yourself joined at the hip with the stress monster.

I’m currently on what I hope is the tail end of one of stress’s roller coaster rides. Eight months ago, I moved half way across the country (away from family and friends) to an unfamiliar town to take my dream job. At the time, I was training to run my second long race – a half marathon. I ran that race in December 2011 and broke my goal time by a whopping 9 minutes. It was a huge accomplishment, but I knew the facade was starting to crack. The last few weeks of training was brutal. I couldn’t focus and felt overwhelmed. Too much stress.

After the race, I decided to take a break from running – just a few weeks, to recharge and de-stress and find the joy in it again.

That break has lasted 4 months, with a few half-hearted attempts at jump-starting my running shoes along the way.

What happened? Athletic fitness had certainly become more than a habit. In 2010 and 2011, I ran oodles of races – ten 5K’s, one 10K (6.2 miles), one 25K (15.5 miles), a half marathon (13.1 miles), and the insane Warrior Dash obstacle course 5K. Between training and races and recreational running, I pounded out nearly 1,000 miles of pavement and trails. Yet, here I am – 4 months later, still not running.

I heard something on NPR the other night as I drifted to sleep, and it struck me. The guest was talking about exercise, and debunking common myths (such as, the myth that the best time to exercise is in the morning. False: the best time to exercise is whenever you will do it!). The statement that hit me was:

Exercise is stress.

Stress! Gah!

But of course, she was right. Exercise (particularly high intensity exercise) stresses the body. I had become a master at applying such stress and then providing my body with the tools to recover, but I had failed to consider the cumulative effect of exercise stress and work stress and adjustment stress and school stress. In the chaos of having to function on a daily basis, do my work, and complete my studies, all in a completely foreign environment, something had to give – and it did. Fitness went out the window.

What do I do now? I’ve recognized the problem, but how should I address it?

One phenomenon that has plagued me the past few months has been mind games. My brain likes to tell me, “You’re only running a couple miles… if you’re not running 10, what’s the point?” To further that notion, the devil on my shoulder works hard to convince me that by the same logic, walking and biking are worthless as well. Of course, that is all nonsense – and in a way, I must acknowledge that I’m starting a bit from scratch here. I’ve lost most of the strength and stamina I had 4 months ago – but I haven’t lost the knowledge I gained or the accomplishments I achieved.

I’m going to start out with a little Finals Week juice reboot. I’m a fan of Jason Vale and his JuiceMaster lifestyle. I did one of his juice reboots after Christmas, with good results. It was supposed to be a 7 day juice and raw fruits/veggies fast, but I stopped after 3 days. Still, it was a great cleanse and I felt really good afterwards.

This time, let’s shoot for a happy, juicy week that concludes next Friday – May 4. Of course, if things don’t go as planned, no harm and no foul. But Finals Week sounds like a perfect build-up to kick start a healthy, active, and relaxing summer.

Time to break out the juicer! Here are some of my juice and smoothie recipes:

And for more information on my juicer and how I got into all of this: My Foray Into Juicing.

Here’s to a great week!

Ready to Rock

So, what does my half marathon playlist have to do with food? A little bit, actually. This is the first race that I’m attempting a proper 3-day carb load for. I’ll report my methods and results upon return from Fredericksburg, but until then, here’s what I’ll be listening to while I tick off 13.1 miles tomorrow. Going for an alt-rock theme (for the most part) this time around.

Well Enough Alone – Chevelle
No Sleep Till Brooklyn – The Beastie Boys
All My Life – Foo Fighters
Do You Want To – Franz Ferdinand
Float – Flogging Molly
One Wild Night – Bon Jovi
Missed The Boat – Modest Mouse
Church On Sunday – Green Day
Learn to Fly – Foo Fighters
Salvation – Rancid
Times Like These – Foo Fighters
Nearly Lost You – Screaming Trees
Elevation – U2
The Hand That Feeds – Nine Inch Nails
Damnit (Growing Up) – Blink 182
Story of My Life – Social Distortion
Sweetness – Jimmy Eat World
Dashboard – Modest Mouse
Olive Me – NoFX
Audience of One – Rise Against
The Kill – 30 Seconds to Mars
The World At Large – Modest Mouse
American Idiot – Green Day
Waiting – Green Day
Time Bomb – Rancid
All The Small Things – Blink 182
Here in Your Bedroom – Goldfinger
I’ll Stick Around – Foo Fighters
(Don’t Fear) The Reaper – Caesars
What I Got – Sublime
Hard Sun – Eddie Vedder
Need You Around – Smoking Popes
Where The Streets Have No Name – U2
The Impression That I Get – Mighty Mighty Bosstones
Float On – Modest Mouse
I Was Wrong – Social Distortion
Savior – Rise Against
Lounge Act – Nirvana
Still Waiting – Sum 41
Minority – Green Day
Machine Gun Blues – Social Distortion
Santeria – Sublime
Staring At The Sun – U2
Bleed American – Jimmy Eat World
Butterfly – Crazy Town
Bleed It Out – Linkin Park
South Side – Moby Feat. Gwen Stefani
Down – 311

2010: How I Did It

I made it! One year is in the books here at Epic Organic. While it has been quiet on the blog front to round out 2010, I actually snuck a few last minute kitchen hoorahs into the year. I’ll write them up one of these days, I swear! Let’s see how I did, shall we?

I started this blog on January 10, 2010, about a month after I’d decided to “go organic.” (You can read the inaugural post or about me and my journey for more on that). My primary motivations were to share what I was learning about food and cooking, and to document one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2010 – to try 10 new foods. (For the record, I counted 43 new foods that I tried in 2010, as well as I can remember).

While this blog isn’t about weight loss, losing weight and improving my fitness level are part of the equation for me. I’m happy to report that after a year of mostly “clean” eating and regular exercise, I lost 80 pounds in 2010. I plan to lose 20 more in 2011, for a goal of -100#. [Update: April 1, 2011 – I’ve lost 100#, and that’s no April Fool!]

I get asked a lot, “How’d you do it?” or, “What’s your secret?” or, “What plan are you on?” Well, I don’t really have any secret tricks, and I made up my own plan. For me, the way I eat isn’t a “diet plan.” It isn’t going to change when I’m “done” or after I hit my weight goal. I plan to eat this way for the rest of my life. The only difference will be that I can eat a few more calories every now and then once I hit “maintenance mode” – once I no longer need to create a weekly calorie deficit to lose weight.

Since I enjoyed the “pay it forward” theme of the most recent Biggest Loser season, my “pay it forward” for 2010 is to share with you the answer to question #1 – this is How I Do It. Note, of course, that I’m not a doctor or a medical professional of any kind, so take the following as a chronicle of my own experiences with eating and weight loss. Check with your doctor regarding your own specific needs.

Starting Out

Starting out, I spent a couple months pretty strictly measuring food, counting calories, and documenting what I ate every day. (I’ve used 2 tools over the years, and both have stood the test of time for me – the DietPower software application, and the web site). It may seem tedious to count and record everything, but there are some important lessons to learn from the task.

  1. Portion control. I used to pour myself a bowl of cereal and then jot down the 190 calories from the nutrition label into my log. That’s a good start – except that if you get out a food scale and actually measure how much cereal there is in what’s called “1 serving” on the label, you’ll find that you’re probably eating 2-3 servings in that one bowl of cereal. That’s several hundred extra calories! You have to learn what serving sizes are in order to accurately gauge your calorie intake.
  2. Eating/snacking patterns. By logging meals, you can more easily find patterns. Do you tend to be starving by 3pm every day? Do you skimp on calories all day then gorge yourself at dinner? Do certain events in life or work trigger snack attacks? There are all sorts of patterns you can glean from your logs, and armed with that knowledge, you can make adjustments to set yourself up for success.
  3. Calories in versus calories out. With an accurate count of how many calories you eat each day or week, you can then calculate how many calories you need to burn through additional exercise in order to lose the amount of weight you want to lose each week. (If you’ve noticed, on the Biggest Loser, they reach their phenomenal weekly weight loss numbers not by starvation, but by extra exercise).

Get yourself a cheap food scale (I got mine for $15 at Walmart) and a notebook (or a calorie tracking app or web site for your mobile phone or computer). Start watching portions and logging what you eat each day, as well as any notes you think might help you find your own personal eating patterns and preferences.

Once I got the hang of food portions, I transitioned out of recording everything. I do keep a calorie tally in my head every day, but it’s approximate. Some people log faithfully every day. Do whatever works for you.

Eating Clean

The most important component of my success in transforming to a healthier lifestyle is in my conversion to “clean” eating. There are several different levels at which you can adopt a “clean eating” approach, all of which are good. It really just depends on your personal preferences and how accessible clean food is to you. I’m lucky to have grocers like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market nearby, but you don’t have to shop anyplace specific to eat clean.

If you google around for “clean eating,” you’ll find a variety of definitions. Here’s the gist of what it means to me:

  • Eat whole foods. This means, eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible – fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains* (such as oats, whole wheat, barley, and quinoa).
    • * The “whole grains” bit can be tricky. Just because a product says it is made from whole grains doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Check the nutrition label and ingredients – a whole grain needs to in the first few ingredients, and if you see the words bleached, enriched, cracked, refined, or milled – put it back on the shelf. It’s junk food. Another tip – real whole grain products tend to be higher in fiber. So grab two items and compare the fiber content. If the “made with whole grains” item has the same amount of fiber as a product not making that claim, it’s probably junk food.
    • Whole foods aren’t necessarily organic, and organic foods aren’t necessarily whole foods. Personally, I choose organic whole foods whenever possible (mostly in the form of organic fresh fruits and vegetables), but you don’t have to “go organic” in order to glean the benefits of a whole foods based diet. There are other benefits to choosing organic over conventional items (such as, the avoidance of pesticides and added hormones in foods, and environmental benefits), but whether you take the additional step and choose organic whole foods is a tangential decision.
    • Whole foods don’t have to be raw. There is an entire raw food movement out there, but I am not well versed in the specifics. (Here’s WebMD’s take on the raw food diet). I have a handful of raw food recipes in my arsenal, and eat lots of raw fruits and greens every day, but I am not a raw foodist. I cook a lot of my food, most often in the form of roasting and stir frying.
    • Read the ingredient lists on food labels. My rule of thumb: if the ingredient list has an item on it that you don’t stock in your pantry, it’s junk food. Don’t eat it. Now, eating out or at gatherings, you won’t have such access to food labels, but at home, I just say no to the chemicals. If I can’t pronounce an ingredient, it doesn’t come into my house. And if I see the phrase “high fructose corn syrup,” I drop it like it’s hot. The whole HFCS debate is too big to cover here, but my personal aversion to it is that nearly all of the high fructose corn syrup used in most food products today in the US is made from genetically modified corn. Since eliminating genetically modified food ingredients (GMO’s) from my diet, I’ve experienced a complete reversal of the hayfever and nasal allergy symptoms that plagued me for the past 17 years. That’s enough reason for me to avoid HFCS. Your mileage may vary, but my experience is not unique.
  • Eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, with the emphasis on veggies. My typical day includes 2-3 servings of fruit with breakfast, 2-3 veggies with lunch, and 2-3 veggies with dinner.
    • When constructing a meal plate for lunch or dinner, I fill up half of the plate with veggies, 1/4 of the plate with a whole grain (like brown rice or quinoa), and 1/4 of the plate with a protein (for the meat eaters out there, a lean meat like chicken, or for the vegetarians, something like tofu or tempeh or beans).
    • Eat a giant bowl of greens every day – and iceberg lettuce does not count! There are huge vitamins in greens! I’m a simple girl when it comes to my salads, so I take my giant salad bowl and fill it half way with a spring green mix or mixed greens with baby spinach, or just baby spinach. Then I add a “something” – a handful of sundried tomatoes, or some dried cranberries or nuts, or some roasted red peppers – then top off the bowl with more greens, drop in some grated carrots and cucumber slices, maybe some broccoli or cauliflower (depending how frisky I’m feeling), and add dressing. Yes, dressing is my one downfall – I love my dressings. Be careful – dressings tend to have a TON of calories, so be conservative and try to select low calorie, natural dressings. I’ve just started experimenting with making my own dressings – that will be one of my ongoing projects in 2011!

You don’t have to do a lot of cooking to pull off clean eating, but you do have to cook a little bit. I had zero cooking skills at this time last year, so it can be done! Most weeks, I cook once per week, and make 4 servings or so of whatever it is. I put 2 in the fridge and 2 in the freezer. After a few weeks, you’ll have a variety of stuff you can pop into the oven or microwave to reheat and eat. And when you have the time, you can make meals. (I don’t have a lot of time!) For the most part, though, the days of throwing pre-made commercial TV dinners from the freezer to the microwave are over. I keep a couple natural frozen meals on hand for emergencies, but they don’t even taste good anymore now that I’ve grown accustomed to eating real food. (My favorites, though, are Kashi and Amy’s brand).

If you like to follow recipes, check out the Clean Food cookbook by Terry Walters. It has been invaluable to me as I’ve learned how to prepare and combine whole foods into delicious meals.

A Typical Day

A typical day for me looks like this:

Breakfast is one of three things:

  1. Organic cereal (I like Kashi) with vanilla soy or almond milk, 1 banana, and a handful of raspberries, strawberries, or blueberries. Sometimes I’ll add a soy yogurt if it’s going to be a while before lunch.
  2. Oatmeal – not the instant junk. Old fashioned rolled oats, with whipped banana, cinnamon, a teaspoon of brown sugar or agave, and a couple tablespoons of ground flax seeds. Topped with a few sliced strawberries and a blob of nut butter (I love Justin’s nut butters – chocolate almond butter and maple almond butter are my faves). It only takes 10 minutes to make oatmeal from scratch, and you can whip up a double or triple or quadruple batch to last you through the week. Here’s the video that taught me how to make oatmeal: Kath’s Classic Oatmeal
  3. If I’m totally strapped for time, breakfast is a smoothie. 1 scoop protein powder (I’m currently hooked on Vega’s Whole Food Health Optimizer), 8 oz vanilla soy or almond milk, a handful of baby spinach, and some fruit – usually 2 of these fruits: a handful of strawberries, a handful of blueberries, or half a banana. Frozen fruits work best here, so I always have a stash of organic frozen fruit in the fridge. And if your fresh bananas are going bad before you can finish them, peel them and freeze in ziplock bags to throw into smoothies!

Lunch: Let’s assume it’s a work day, so I bring my lunch with me. My lunchbox typically contains a “meal,” a veggie, and a snack.

  1. The meal – it’s a container of whatever I cooked up that week: quinoa stir fry, veggie lasagna, chili, pizza, spaghetti, whatever (made from whole-food ingredients wherever possible, of course!). There’s always at least 1 serving of veggies within whatever it is – preferably 2 or more. In emergencies, this will be a Kashi or Amy’s frozen meal instead. If I won’t have access to a microwave, it’ll be a veggie sandwich or wrap, or occasionally a PB&J (hey, I’m human. We all have our vices).
  2. The veggie – most of the time, this is a big bowl of green salad (as described earlier). Sometimes, it’s carrots and hummus or something of that nature.
  3. The snack – usually an apple or a pear or a cutie, but if I know it’ll be a long time before dinner, I’ll throw in a snack bar like a Larabar or a homemade snack bar (Brendan Brazier’s book, Thrive, has some awesome whole-food snack bar recipes).

Dinner: This is where I usually pull out my 1/2 veggies, 1/4 whole grain, 1/4 protein plate trick. If I didn’t have a bowl of greens (aka: salad) for lunch, I’ll have it with dinner. And some whole grains are high in protein, too (I’m looking at you, quinoa!). So when I have quinoa, I’ll usually just have my quinoa dish and a roasted or steamed veggie. Dinner is where my cooking comes in. The meals I cook are usually dinners.

You’ll find a lot of advice out there saying you should eat X number of times per day, or don’t eat after X time at night, yada yada yada. I don’t have any hard and fast rules in this regard. I practice what is called “intuitive eating.” I eat when I am hungry. I stop when I am satisfied (notice, I didn’t say “full” – that bit about it taking 15 minutes for your brain to find out that you’re full is actually true! Stop before you feel “full” and 15 minutes later, you’ll be full!) Generally, I eat 3 times per day and sometimes 1 snack between lunch and dinner. If my stomach is growling an hour before bed, I don’t suffer. I have some peanut butter on toast, or a handful of nuts. I don’t starve, ever.

That’s a big change from how I did things in the past. I used to go to bed hungry, thinking that if I ate, I’d gain weight, because food is evil. No. Food is fuel, and if your stomach is growling, your body needs more fuel. If you know you’re going to bed in an hour, don’t fuel up for a marathon! Fuel up for an hour 🙂 Just do not, in any circumstances, starve yourself. It’s terribly easy to kick in the starvation mechanism in our bodies, and while it’s one of those antiquated systems that in our fortunate circumstances we really don’t need anymore, it’s there. Don’t mess with it. It wreaks havoc on weight loss.

My daily calories are typically front-loaded – meaning, my highest calorie meal is breakfast. Ideally, the second highest calorie meal is lunch and the lowest calorie meal is dinner. This works best for me, but it’s not a strict rule. It’s just one of those patterns I noticed when I logged my calories and meals every day.

The other thing you’ll see a lot is a recommendation of how much water to drink. If you eat your fruits and veggies daily, you’re getting a good bit of water right there. My strategy is to keep a bottle of water with me at all times, and drink when I’m thirsty. I average about 60 oz. of water a day (3-4 bottles – I use a reusable water bottle that I refill, either from my Pur water faucet filter at home or from the water fountains at work). Some days more, some days less. I drink when I feel like drinking, and that’s all there is to it.

Eating for Weight Loss

If part of your goal in eating clean is to lose weight, there are a few more techniques you can employ as a means to that end.

  • Think: nutrient density. This concept has really made the difference for me when it comes to deciding what to eat. While I of course have occasional treats (any family members that have seen me eating on holidays must think, “My god – how does this girl lose weight? She’s eating everything in sight!”), my everyday food decisions are based on nutrient density. How many vitamins are in that [food I’m about to eat]? The more vitamins per bite, the more I want to eat it. I look at the bowl of ice cream. Not a whole lot of nutrients there – but a bowl of fruit? Bring it on! Same sweet tooth fix, much better nutrition. I look at foods with very few nutrition perks, and I just don’t want to eat them. They’re wasted calories. I want to make my calories count. I want the calories I eat to nourish and fuel my body.
  • Food is not the enemy. It can be hard to get over the sense that eating is bad when you’re trying to lose weight. We need to eat! Eating is necessary! Food is good! It’s what you eat that makes the difference. Highly processed foods have been stripped of most of their nutritional value. They’re full of calories that don’t nourish your body. Your body then demands that you eat more, but if you keep feeding it nutritionally devoid foods, it will keep demanding more! It’s a vicious cycle. The good news is, when you’re looking at whole foods, they tend to be lower in calories than processed foods. So, you can eat a lot more for fewer calories! And, they nourish your body with the vitamins and healthy stuff that it needs. I’m telling you – I eat like a king these days. I eat lots and lots of food! Deprivation is unheard of. (Real) Food is fuel! Your body needs high-quality fuel in order to run efficiently. Whole, nutrient-dense foods make the best fuels.
  • Don’t drink your calories. This will be a personal decision for most people, and there’s no right or wrong approach here. For me, I love food so much that I’d rather sacrifice caloric beverages to reach my daily calorie deficit than give up eating a single bite of food. You have to expend more calories than you consume to lose weight. I’d rather get my calories from food! So I avoid drinking beverages with calories. I drink mostly water, but I love water. If you’re not a water person, seek out natural calorie-free beverages. I try to avoid chemicals if at all possible.
    • To that end, I generally avoid diet sodas. When I realized they’re basically just chemical water, I felt no incentive to drink them. If I add up all of the diet sodas I drank in 2010, the total came to 8 or so all year. I don’t want the chemical sweeteners in my body, and anything naturally sweetened typically has calories. I’m in a weight loss phase, so I’m trying not to drink my calories – therefore, no soda for me. Honestly, I don’t miss it, and when I do, I have one. It’s a treat, not a staple. I also avoid caffeine as a rule of thumb, so for me, there’s not much incentive aside from the bubbles to drink sodas. That said, if Diet Coke is what gets you through the day, by all means – have at it! The real root of this rule, for me, is not to drink my calories.

Move Your Body

This is the part where most people groan. Listen – if you know me at all, you know that exercise was just about my most hated activity on the planet. My trademark phrase used to be, “Running is a means of escape!” (and that’s all!) I didn’t like getting sweaty. But when I really looked at why I didn’t like exercising, it was because I didn’t like huffing and puffing. I didn’t like feeling clumsy and out of shape. Exercise made me feel like crap. It made me sore. It made my lungs hurt. Blech.

Well, I hate to say it, but the only way out is through. You have to build your body up to a level of fitness where your lungs and circulatory system are functioning efficiently enough that you no longer huff and puff, and you no longer hurt every time you work out. That’s the amazing part, though – our bodies are such unbelievably adaptable machines. It doesn’t take long, and it doesn’t take much. Start small. Set a goal to work out 30 minutes a day, 3 times a week for 3 weeks. I bet by the time you reach that 3 weeks, you’ll be feeling much better about your workouts.

I started last winter with a workout DVD – Bob Harper’s Weight Loss Yoga. I did it 3 times per week. You’re supposed to do each level for 2 weeks, but I was very weak and out of shape when I started, so I did each level for 3 weeks. After 9 weeks, I had made it through all 3 levels and was working out for 60 minutes each time. The strength I gained was absolutely phenomenal. The changes in my body were so profound that I was motivated to keep going. That DVD changed my life.

Then, I decided to re-try the Couch to 5K running program. I have no idea why – I had tried it a few years ago and couldn’t get past week 1. And I’ve always hated running – even in high school, when I was fairly fit. The thing is, I enjoyed walking as exercise, and some natural urge inside me always wants to run. Maybe it’s a throwback to being 5 years old and just running for no reason. Whatever the reason, I did it – and finished the program 9 weeks later.

Today, I’m a runner. I run 3 or more miles, 3 times per week (averaging 10-12 miles per week). I’m no ultra-marathoner, but I’m a runner! John “The Penguin” Bingham has been a huge inspiration to me. He’s all about running for mortals – how regular people can enjoy running for fun and fitness.

It takes some attention to your body and running technique and equipment to avoid injury, especially when you’re an overweight runner (like I still technically am!). (Namely: you need good running shoes – properly fitted, and with the right amounts of stability and motion control for your foot and body type. Go get yourself fitted at a running shoe store if you plan to run. Just do it. Consider the $100 shoes an investment in yourself). I weighed over 240 pounds when I started running. I was at 219 when I ran my first 5K. Knock on wood – I have yet to encounter any injuries. Read up on common runner’s injuries and how to avoid them, and be conscious of what your body is telling you. This definitely is NOT the place for, “no pain, no gain.” No pain means, you’re doing it right!

Why I Run

This isn’t to say you have to become a runner to get fit. Walking has been proven to share the same health benefits. It just takes longer! If I had to give you one sentence explaining why I choose to run over all of the other activities I could be doing, I’d say it’s because it burns the most calories per minute. I don’t have a heck of a lot of spare time, and it’s relatively easy for me to fit running into my weekly schedule. At my weight, I burn 128 calories walking for 30 minutes at 2.8mph. I burn 323 calories running at 5mph for that same 30 minutes. Hmm. 323 calories, or 128? I’ll take the 323, thanks!

And there’s no big cash investment required to run – no equipment, really. You do need a good pair of running shoes, as I mentioned, but that’s about it. Step out the front door and go! Run around the block, run down the street and back, whatever! Running around my neighborhood is a great option when I’m short on time because there’s no before/after prep or travel required. Put shoes on, run, take shoes off. Done.

Running also gets me out into nature, and I love running on the various trails through local nature preserves. Nature, to me, is the best distraction. It’s very mind-clearing for me to get out there and watch the birds and bees (and the flowers and the trees). Check out to find walking/running/biking trails near you.

Running, for me, is also a great solitary sport. To be fair, I haven’t given group running a try, but I really enjoy the fact that running is something I do alone. It’s therapeutic. It plays well into my competitive nature, because I can always compete against myself. This first year has been a lot of fun because I’ve broken my own records, over and over again, as I’ve gotten more fit.

But that’s just me. The point is, move your body. Find something you love, and do it regularly. Walk, run, bike, swim, spin, take aerobics or martial arts classes, do workout DVD’s, do Wii Fit, whatever. Just move your body!


Finally, relax. I’ve found that yoga is a wonderful way to relax. I use yoga several different ways. I’ve got workout DVD’s that incorporate yoga poses into calorie-burning workouts (specifically, Bob Harper’s Weight Loss Yoga and Jillian Michaels’ Yoga Meltdown). I thoroughly enjoy these for strength and flexibility training, and the perk is that you learn some yoga poses while you’re at it – making “regular” yoga easier to get the hang of. Then, I’ve got some more traditional yoga DVD’s, with morning and evening workout options that either invigorate or relax the body. I use them all at different times.

Get some sleep. Quality of sleep is huge in maintaining good health – really! Several studies even link sleep to weight loss. So, get some sleep! If I had to pick one thing that is my secret weapon in all of this, it’s that I almost always get my 8 hours of sleep per night, and rarely less than 7.

Love Your Body

You had to know there was something cheese-ball coming at some point. Love your body, today and every day. Maybe you don’t love the state that it’s in right now, but you’ve got to love that your heart keeps on beating and your bones keep on holding you up and your muscles keep on working. Love your body and treat it well. It will adapt and improve and get stronger as you give it those opportunities!

I literally thank my body for holding up so well over the years that I abused it by eating terribly and not exercising. I appreciate its adaptability and its ability to survive in grave conditions. When I think of how starved I was for nutrition and sleep, it’s a miracle this thing even functioned! But it did, and I am so grateful. Thank you, body! I’m sorry I was so mean to you for so long and I promise to treat you well for the rest of your days!

What’s Next in 2011

So, that’s what I did in 2010 to get to where I am today. That’s pretty much what I will continue to do in 2011. My resolutions include:

  • To continue the whole-foods organic lifestyle. (I also transitioned to being a vegetarian in 2010, though I don’t consider that to be related to my weight loss. It was for other reasons, and I don’t feel that eating meat or not really affects the end result, as long as you’re eating clean).
  • To run a 10K this spring, and maybe… maybe… train for a half marathon by the end of the year.
  • To get my running pace down to around 10:00/mile by the end of the year. (I’m currently around 12:00/mile).
  • To lose the last 20 pounds to my goal of -100#.

So, 2011 looks like more of the same! Keep eating clean, keep running, and keep smiling 🙂

Here’s to a happy and healthy new year to you and yours!