HAES-Style Training

When I’m working on the treadmill, or walking outdoors, and I reach the point where I just want to stop, I have a mantra that I repeat to myself, over and over:

Shaunta Alburger, you are an Ironwoman.

It gives purpose to pushing through and continuing on and taking one more step or picking up the pace or adding some hills.

My mantra makes me push hard at the end of a training session. Yesterday I only walked 25 minutes, because I was pressed for time. But I jogged the last two minutes. I haven’t jogged for two minutes in a row since I was a teenager. A few weeks ago, jogging for one minute made me feel like I was dying. I also averaged 3 mph. With no shin pain. I am getting stronger.

Last night I spent some time trying to find someone–anyone–who had a web presence and was a fat person training for an Ironman without an expressed goal of losing weight. What I found was a lot of “watch me lose weight and then train for an Ironman” blogs. Some inspirational-type stories about people who had lost weight and then completed an Ironman.

The one thing all of these had in common was that the weight loss was the most important thing. And it occurred to me that this is really backward.

Linda Bacon, in her book Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, talks about how once you get to a point of eating intuitively, your body naturally finds it’s set point. I still struggle with some parts of intuitive eating. Eating what I want is working out okay. I’ve been able to make food morally neutral most of the time, which is a huge accomplishment. But I still struggle with stopping when I’m full. I have all of these emotions and past experiences mixed up in food, and I’m still sorting them out. But it is getting better. Slowly, but it is getting there.

I am also learning to accept that I may have damaged my metabolism and other bodily functions enough with decades of dieting, undiagnosed gluten intolerance, and binge eating that I am at my set point now. I may never lose weight, even as I become dramatically healthier.

Except, if I continue to train athletically and eventually build up to the amount of training necessary to actually become an Ironwoman.

I’ve struggled with this some. How do I keep it from being about weight, when running at 340 pounds hurts so bad? How do I separate training from weight loss when, as I start training harder and harder, it’s probably going to happen anyway.

I haven’t lost any weight in the last two months. Not a pound. I’m stronger. I’m faster. I’m not any lighter.

But, I’m starting from zero here. I give myself points for grocery shopping, because even that amount of exercise is training when you are used to spending all day, every day sitting in front of a computer. I’m ecstatic with my 700 or 800 points per week, but they aren’t enough to make me lose any weight.

They are enough to make it so that I can walk a 5K. They are enough so that I am considerably more bendy than I was two months ago. They’re enough to give me the cajones to go into the free weight section and do strength training with the grunting men. They are also enough to make me healthier.

And they are enough to make my body change, even if I’m not losing weight. My legs are stronger, my arms are stronger, my core is stronger. And they are also a little smaller. Not much. Not noticeably so unless you happen to live in my skin.

They aren’t enough to make me an Ironwoman. For that I need closer to 2500 points a week, and grocery shopping doesn’t count. Yoga might not either. To train to be an Ironwoman, I’d need 2500 points of swimming, running and biking.

I figure it would take me five years to build up to that level. And that those five years will definitely have an impact on my body. There is no way to divorce training from my body, after all. In fact, training is all about reuniting your body with your mind, isn’t it? Getting into your skin and being happy there.

Training for an Ironman-length triathlon would change my body. I would get stronger, of course. And I would probably get smaller.

It would impact the size of my body the same way Bacon says HAES might for some people. As a side effect of healthy behavior.

So, this is a round about way of thinking today about how I can stay true to the HAES concept and radical body acceptance, if I’m doing something that will almost surely result in my body changing over the next five years.

The body is a spectacularly magical thing, isn’t it? If you ask something of it, it will do it’s damnedest to comply to the best of its ability. If I continue to ask mine to let me run, and do the work to get there, it will eventually shift itself so that it can run with more ease. My legs will get stronger. My lungs and heart will get stronger. And my miraculous body will use it’s fat stores as energy over the course of those long training sessions.

I might not ever compete in an Ironman-length triathlon. But joining a roller derby league or learning to belly dance or taking up skiing–any athletic endeavor I pursue will change my body. Roller derby will build my leg and core strength. Dancing will make me more graceful. Skiing–I don’t know, I’ve never done it. But something. And that something, the idea of my body changing to allow me to participate in these things, is exciting.

The key, I think, to building a HAES-style relationship with movement and exercise is to focus on training and results that are not weight loss. Just like building a HAES-style relationship with food.

Shifting my inner dialogue from imagining stepping on a scale and seeing an obscenely small number on it, to hearing the voices in my head announce that I’m an Ironwoman as I cross the finish line is a major paradigm shift.

I still have work to do. One of my biggest struggles is avoiding the scale at the gym. It gets easier and easier as I learn to trust that if I continue training, my body will respond by getting stronger and faster. But the hardest part is that avoiding the scale doesn’t let me avoid thinking about my weight. The thought is still there, although I’m getting better at dismissing it.

Another key to building a healthy relationship with exercise is realizing that the amount of exercise that will bring me big health benefits is never going to cause me to lose weight. I could continue to walk 30 to 60 minutes four or five times a week, do yoga and strength training two or three times a week–and the changes to my body will most likely not include shrinkage. I’ll reduce my risk of everything from heart disease to cancer, but I will not be smaller.

Making that leap of acceptance is incredibly freeing.

If I eat a balanced diet of good food that I enjoy and stop eating when I’m full, my body may or may not get smaller. But the goal is to get healthier, and that will happen regardless.

If I train my body with a goal of running an Ironman-length triathlon five years from now, it will get stronger. I’ll be able to run further, bike further and swim further. And faster. Training to be an athlete will eventually make my body more athletic. How could it not? But I refuse to make weight loss the goal.

If I ever do become an Ironwoman, it won’t be because of what I’ve lost. It will be because of what I’ve gained.



Filed under body

15 responses to “HAES-Style Training

  1. Laura

    I love you! This is so inspirational I want to cry! As a young woman who has struggled with overcoming eating problems and compulsive exercise I cannot thank you enough for your beautiful insight!

  2. schmemily

    My periods of dramatic weight loss (there have been three of them, I think–at least) have all been marked by obsessive exercise, so I’m in a slightly different place. The gym, the treadmill, training with a race in mind–all of these activities are a little too trigger-y for me. Maybe not forever, but definitely for the time being. All of these things turn movement into a task for me, which means I feel forced into it, which sucks all the pleasure from the activity.

    I’m combating this by slowing everything down. I walk my dog most days, and instead of setting speed or distance or hill-climbing goals, I’ve begun to practice Thich Nhat Hanh-style walking meditation. I took dance classes for a few years, and have a pretty decent concept of proper alignment, so I often focus on that. And I’d like to get back to yoga, although it has been hard for me to find a practice that is not weight-loss-focused and doesn’t have a competitive atmosphere.

    I guess my mantra should be “It’s not a competition, it’s not a competition, it’s not a competition.” 😉

    I’m loving all of the athlete posts!

    • That’s really interesting, Emily. I hadn’t thought about someone being triggered by the traditional idea of athleticism. I think it’s not a competition is a great mantra. I definitely don’t think athlete has to equal competition. Even against yourself.

      • Totally agree. And there’s something about the way you approach this subject that really has me thinking–maybe you’re just asking the right questions.

  3. Pam

    Look at my blog from about 5 years ago–I’m more a tween but with the disadvantage of being 50 then and worked my way up to a half ironman before life (in the form of an I’ll husband) got in the way three years ago.

  4. It makes me sad that you couldn’t find any resources on Ironman training that weren’t associated with weight loss – sad, but not surprising, I suppose.

    I think that the questions (and answers) you bring up in this post are excellent ones. I think taking weight loss off the table as a goal for training is, as you say, a real paradigm shift for many. I’m totally inspired by your journey and am glad to have found your site. I’ll be cheering you on!

    • Thank you, Ashley 🙂

      It is sad. And also not surprising. Losing weight is considered such as huge accomplishment in our culture. Maybe is even makes finishing an Ironman pale in comparison? I don’t know.

  5. Jerome

    This was a really awesome post and very inspiring 🙂

  6. Hi Shaunta,
    Thank you for your well written post about HAES!!! I am so happy to see it this morning. I visited a local health club last night to move my body as winter has returned to us here in MN this spring…being outside moving was not appealing to me. I was VERY disappointed to see multiple banners/signs/posters promoting their “weight loss” programs. REALLY? This place? A supposed center for balance and fitness? Mainly serving clients over age 50…what are they thinking? I was shocked at their lack of awareness of how un-healthy that can be for so many people. I am trying to stay positive and will approach them about doing a speaking engagement there to talk about eating disorders and not having “weight loss” as a goal of health. And perhaps they’ll remove the book from the locker room that was called something like, “Women’s body weight charts” I felt like I’d stepped back in time…All I could think was “WHY?”

    Thank you for enlightening with your beautiful words.
    Becky Henry

    • You’re very welcome, Becky.

      My gym doesn’t have the banners and books–but I’m pretty sure that most of the people there are still there to lose weight. I have noticed though, that some older people attend pretty regularly, and I wonder (hope) if maybe they are there to improve their health. I don’t know. I’d love to know how receptive your gym is to your idea of a speaking engagement.

    • @Becky: I have a tendency to throw those books in the trash when I see them at my gym. Or doctor’s office. I suppose one could argue that I’m wasting their money, but better their money that someone else’s health!!!

  7. This is a beautiful and inspirational post. I love what you said about the key being to focus on training and results that are not weight loss. Just like building a HAES-style relationship with food.
    Intuitive eating has definitely given me complete freedom from all of my eating disorders and weigh obsession.
    Great post – and congratulations beginning intuitive eating and being able to take the moral judgement out of food.


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