AAA Conference Presentation: Disjunctures Between Pre-Race and Post-Race Foodways and Practices of Triathletes and Long-Distance Runners

AAA 2013 Conference Lecture "Disjunctures Between Pre-Race and Post-Race Foodways and Practice of Triathletes and Marathon Runners

AAA 2013 Conference Lecture

I will be presenting with several other anthropologists on the ethnographic research methods we used in our foodways research at this month’s AAA (American Anthropological Association) Annual Conference in Chicago. These methods should help other researchers when they encounter discrepancies between what people say they eat and what they actually eat.   I will be talking about the surveys I used for my research on the food rituals, beliefs and post-race binging of competitive triathletes and marathon runners. This being my first AAA conference and first AAA session presentation, fortunately for my nerves, it will be before the Thanksgiving holiday.

The session where we will be presenting our food research methods is called Foodways in Discourse and Practice:  A Discussion of Ethnographic Methods.  It will be held on Sunday, November 24, 2013, 12:15 PM to 2 PM in Conference Room 4L at the Chicago Hilton. For more information about this years AAA conference, please go to the “2013 Annual Meeting Central” section of the AAA website.

My presentation’s title is “Disjunctures Between Pre-Race and Post-Race Foodways and Practices of Triathletes and Long-Distance Runners.” Below is an abstract (250 words):

Triathlete at the 2007 Carpinteria Triathlon enjoying a post-race binge.

Triathlete winner of 2007 Carpinteria Sprint Triathlon enjoying a post-race binge.

In this research project I discovered the multiple disjunctures between the pre vs. post-race foodways beliefs and practices of triathletes and endurance runners in California.  I also discovered the ideal body types and food beliefs of these endurance athletes and how these ideals are influenced by scientific hegemony and an American fitness culture of embodied elitism, health and morality. Using the symbolic interpretive technique of Lévi-Strauss’ binary oppositions to tease out “good/bad” foods and body types I analyzed how these ideals are actually employed in day-to-day nutrition and eating practices using Bourdieu’s practice theory and concept of cultural capital. In regards, to race rituals (and rites of reversal which occur during a race event for some participants) I used Turner’s theory of how rituals serve to reproduce the values and practices of cultures and maintain group solidarity. I also analyzed through self-reported symptoms of physiological stress response on how these rituals, which included binging on carbohydrate-rich foods, may be reinforced as techniques of stress hormone reduction. Research methods I used include participant observation—doing the workouts with my triathlete and runner informants and participating in two races, in-person semi-structured interviews, and online surveys. I found my nearly 150 respondents through the membership of two local competitive triathlon and marathon training clubs, informal networks of friends and friends-of-friends of triathletes and competitive long-distance runners as well as informal networks of online followers of a twitter profile which I set-up for this project. The results of my research illustrate how useful some of these “old” classic theories of anthropology still can be in current research of both cultural ideals, identity and as well as the biological effects/functions of nutritional practices.

Here is a copy of the Spring 2009 research survey that I used for my research on discovering the possible reasons behind the disjunctures of what runners say they eat and what they actually put in their mouths during a post-race celebratory meal: “Runners Pre-Race/Post-Race Survey” [PDF].

Here is a copy of my research analysis (un-published paper) of which my presentation at the AAA was based: “Post-Race Food Cravings and Food Consumption of Endurance Runners” [PDF].

The other presenters during this food research methods session at this year’s AAA conference have some great perspectives and methods to share from their own research areas. They include the session’s organizer PhD Candidate Amber O’Connor from The University of Texas at Austin and her presentation “Obviously Imperceptible: Identity and the Tortilla in Quinta Roo.” O’Conner applies Bourdieu’s practice theory to the complexity of identity formation in her ethnographic research in a Maya village in Mexico. Graduate student Tylor Short of the University of Louisville will show how to discover the reasons behind a consumer’s performance of morality-based food choices with his revealing research on public versus private coffee consumption using dietary recall surveys and questionnaires. All three of these presentations illustrate the importance of participant observation as an invaluable research method for verifying survey data. It was the observations of each anthropologist that revealed the discrepancies between what people said they ate and documented in the surveys they completed and the foods that they actually consumed–the reason for the discrepancies. This research methods session should be of particular interest to anthropologists working in the private sector as consumer research professionals in the food industry or in the public sector in the arena of public health research as well as anthropology instructors and students.

Advertisements

Food As Fuel Part II: How Triathletes and Marathoners Eat in Between Work and Working Out

This  article is Part II of my report on the eating habits of 141 triathletes and marathoners I surveyed in the Fall 2008 during my first year of graduate school in applied cultural anthropology. At that time I was still new to the various theoretical perspectives in anthropology that strive to explain why people do what they do.

Like any interpretation of behavior, my survey results are contextual of a particular place and time with biases per the questions I asked and the perspectives of my respondents. That being said, I still find that trying to figure out “why people do what they do”  is not only interesting, but has  obvious practical implications. From altruistic societal goals such as creating more effective and long-lasting peace initiatives and changing consumer behavior to more environmentally sustainable norms and  to more mundane things such as marketing a local business, figuring out why people do what they do is many practical applications. Continue reading

Food as Fuel Part I: Food Beliefs of Triathletes & Marathoners

Triathlete at the 2007 Carpinteria Triathlon enjoying a post-race binge.

Triathlete at the 2007 Carpinteria Triathlon enjoying a post-race binge.

With the current food movement extolling the health benefits of whole foods, organic foods, home cooked or slow foods, gluten/fat/sugar/salt-free and 100% natural foods, I thought it was curious that many endurance athletes, self-described health and fitness conscious folks, who even believed themselves that home cooking with natural ingredients was better for their health, regularly processed and fast foods on the go. 

Instead of eating meals and snacks made of local farm fresh ingredients, the marathon runners and triathletes I interviewed regularly gulped down processed, packaged and pre-made convenience foods chock full of artificial ingredients known only to food chemists with PhDs. And forget about sitting down to a meal with friends or family around the table. Many of the athletes I surveyed frequently ate alone– taking their meals in the front seat of a car, under a tree on a trail or from their bike jersey’s back pocket. Finally, they don’t even think of a meal in the same way. Instead of meal made up of a variety of ingredients found in nature, they’re computing food calories and ideal proportions of macronutrients to optimize their athletic performance. What’s the deal?

By looking at the dietary habits of nearly 150 triathletes and marathon runners in my area—what they eat, when they eat, how they eat and their food-related rituals and beliefs—I hoped to explain why they are “a little different” when it comes to their eating habits. The following report is an edited down version of a research project I did for a food anthropology class in the Fall of 2008. I edited out most of the social science lingo, methodological details and references to old dead French social theorists to spare you.
Methodology: 
To figure out why triathletes and marathon runners are preaching, but not necessarily practicing the whole foods/slow food trend, I surveyed 108 marathon and ultra runners of two local running clubs and 33 triathlete members of a local triathlon club. In addition to the online surveys, I interviewed several race participants about their food ways at the Carpinteria Triathlon, September 28, 2008 and Santa Clarita Half-Marathon and Marathon races, November 2, 2008.
 My sample of respondents was purely convenience based. However, they represent “typical” triathletes and marathon runners per the demographic information from online media kits for Triathlete and Runner’s World magazines (Triathlete 2008; Runners World 2008). And, full disclosure, they were also my friends and friends of friends who self-reported their eating habits while training for and during their last “important” triathlon or marathon race. Their self-reporting may not be entirely accurate due to poor memory and potential social embarrassment. For example, my eight time Ironman athlete and personal trainer friend may not have come clean about his weekend beer and gummy bear consumption. In other words, the results should be taken with a grain of salt (ouch, bad pun).
The eating habits and dietary beliefs of the interviewed athletes seemed to mimic the ideals of sports nutrition within both sport sub-cultures of triathlon and long-distance running.  These ideals are represented in sports nutrition articles in both peer-reviewed research journals and popular triathlon and running magazines such as Triathlete, Runner’s World and Marathon and Beyond.
However, this is with the one significant exception: post-race binging. Very often, after a major race, my surveyed endurance athletes threw out everything they knew about performance enhancing nutrition and recovery and did the exact opposite. Basically, it seems that these normally sports nutrition disciplined and solitary eaters found their inner post-finals college party selves and went crazy–dietarily speaking. Many of the triathletes and marathon runners surveyed went on a post-race communal consumption binge: drinking enough beer or margaritas to make a fraternity guy (or sorority girl) wobbly, and happily consuming normally what they considered to be “bad foods” foods such as burgers, French fries, pizza…But I am getting ahead of myself.
Research Results:

The “good foods” and “bad foods” according to triathletes and marathon and ultra runners

The surveyed and interviewed athletes generally categorized foods as either “good foods” or “bad foods” most consistently by their digestibility (important for consuming foods while training and racing), their functional ability to increase the athlete’s endurance, and their perceived healthfulness. When asked to name “good foods” and “bad foods” triathletes and marathon and ultra runners athletes alike seemed to categorize most foods by the foods’ perceived health and athletic performance enhancement functions.
“Good foods”
Good foods were described as “healthy”,“nutritious”, “high carbohydrate”, “anti-oxidant”, “fresh”, “whole grain”, “organic”, “non-processed”, “vegetarian” and “raw”. Some of the descriptions they used for good foods seemed to be symbolic of the body image ideals of these sport cultures such as “lean”, “in moderation”, “light”, “low fat” and “whole”.
Believing that they are what they eat, triathletes and marathon runners seem to prefer eating “light”, “low fat” and “whole” foods and thereby would imbue their bodies with those qualities and thus they, in turn, would seem to embody their sport cultures.
Moderate amounts of high carbohydrate and micronutrient rich foods were uniformly cited as generally “good foods”, a category which matched the prevailing sports nutrition discourse (Ryan 2007; Maughan 2002 ;USDA 2008). What I didn’t see that surprised me were foods being categorized “good” because they were “organic” or “natural.” Perhaps the mainstream acceptance of those labels have made them no longer differentiating or meaningful or perhaps these are just not as important to these athletes as the foods functional qualities in regards to one’s athletic performance. Though a few respondents did say that they preferred vegan or vegetarian foods.  Also, many foods that were good were noted as “lean” which reflects the dominant fitness trend and embodied culture of runners as lean and athletic (Bourdieau 1984: 214).
 Representative examples of “good foods” from surveyed triathletes are:
“carbohydrate foods like bagels, oatmeal, energy gels, bars like PowerBar.”
 “I find whole foods are best and I also try and avoid a lot of dairy …”
“high carbohydrate foods like bagels, oatmeal, energy gels, bars like PowerBar”.
“fruit and vegetables and juices. Yams/sweet potatoes for high carb content.”
 “WHOLE GRAIN BREAD, BANANAS, PASTA”
Representative examples of “good foods”  from surveyed marathon and ultra runners are:
“lean protein sources, wild salmon, grass-fed beef, veggies, fruits, nuts, fish oil, olive oil, coconut oil, protein supplements, maltdextrin for recovery.”
“whole grains, fruits & veg[ie]s”
“skim milk, yogurt, whey protein, bananas, apples, berries, oatmeal, lots of broccoli, olive oil, chicken breast, salmon, … wheat breads. Water”
“Chicken, fruits, oatmeal, salads, beans, pasta, seltzer water! … fresh, stuff that is lower in fat content, stuff that will fill me but not fatten me…”
“Bad foods”
Bad foods were described as the very qualities triathletes and marathon runners eschew with their active life styles. Symbolic of these “bad foods” qualities are their negative descriptors such as “fake”, “processed”, “high fat”, “fried” (“fried” is also a slang term for “tired”—a state these athletes try avoid when training and racing), “preserved,” “fat” (race times are slower generally the heavier one is), “heavy,” “artificial” and “junk” (term for over-training without a specific performance goal is called “doing junk miles” in the lingo of both of these sport cultures).
The categories of foods are based on their functional role of health and athletic performance enhancement. These functions are based on what many of the athletes believe is scientific research on exercise physiology and sports nutrition as well as the health and fitness trend in American culture. This is a significant departure from food choices based on religious beliefs, flavor and family customs or traditions.
 These “bad foods” generally mirrored the same foods categorized as “bad” in the American media lately. Foods that contain high fructose corn syrup, MSG, too much salt, and trans fats are “bad”. These athletes usually consider fried foods and “drug foods” such as coffee, alcohol and refined sugar are as “bad”. Also, considered “bad” are red meat, processed foods, fast foods.
Representative “bad foods” from surveyed triathletes are:
“simple carbs, alcohol, processed food”
“Alcohol, preservative laden foods, ice cream”
“fried foods, lots of meat, lots of alcohol, soda!”
“CHOCOLATE, COFFEE, SUGARS, STARCH”
“anything with fake sugars desserts fast food of any kind”
Representative “bad foods” from surveyed marathon and ultra runners are:
“French fries, alcohol, sweets”
“Anything that takes a while to digest or impedes digestion. I tend to avoid: meat, friend foods, especially fried meat, cheese, anything ‘heavy’”
“Liquor, fast foods, red meat, salt, processed foods”
“Too much fat”
“Processed foods tell me ‘evil’. Although I used soda in ultras, just consuming them (my big vice) is not good at all. Dairy products…Eating too much puts on fat. Take out food. Coffee…”

Post-race celebrations: Reversal of food categories

Something interesting happens to the endurance athletes’ categories of “good foods” and “bad foods” after they finish an important race. At many a post-race awards dinner or party the categories of good and bad foods seem to get reversed. What is normally a  “bad food” is now a  “reward” or a “treat” and consumed with gusto. Once these athletes cross the finish line many of them seem to ignore their food prohibitions and, basically, go nuts. Post-race celebrations seem to function as a rite of reversal (a socially acceptable way to blow off steam) for triathletes and marathon runners who normally abide by their strict dietary and training regimes each day (Turner 1964). Many triathletes and runners stay up late after they finish a race (or try to anyway) and celebrate in an un-characteristicly  hedonistic fashion over-indulging in normally forbidden and unhealthy or “bad” foods, beverages and other activities… By purposely breaking their dietary rules in a post-race ritual of (food and lifestyle rules) reversal, they are reinforcing their fealty to these rules. Or, in other words, like your writing teacher taught you in high school or college, you have to know the rules, before you can break them.
Some representative “broken rule” responses of what triathletes said they ate after they raced on race day include a lot of “bad foods”:
“anything/everything and beer”
“love burritos and margaritas!”
“French fries, burger, salty foods. Wine or beer. Treat foods.”
“whatever I’m craving at the time, frequently something full of fat and salt (like pizza) after a long race.”
“A big fat steak!”
 The marathon and ultra runners I surveyed had similar food category reversals. Here are some of them:
“… ice cold Sierra Nevada beer, big salad, maybe even some nachos. Mostly salty cravings and fat cravings”
“very much so, often I will eat a very large, fatty, high protein dinner, like a gigantic cheeseburger, or fried chicken.”
“1 or 2 beers, some sort of red meat. This is very different from my normal diet which is primarily vegetarian.”
“Beer and Mexican food. Spicy.”
“BEER OR MARGARITAS… BECAUSE I CAN!!!”
I like to think of these crazy post-race binges of triathletes and marathon runners as  their to equivalent of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Competitive triathlete women, normally never seen by their training mates in anything other than lycra with their hair bound up in a pony tail, are dancing in high heals (or barefoot) in some kind of feminine dressy thing, hair flying free and beads optional…and eating anything and going for the cold beer and nachos. Post marathon race men, usually decked out in some form of sweaty running shoe, tank and shorts ensemble, are showered up and jeans clad at a hotel bar chowing down ice cream and pie, after re-hydrating with a chilled bottles of their favorite beer and, maybe, tequila shots.  Normally devout and disciplined, once a year (or on this case after a milestone race), the triathlon and marathon faithful relax and party like it’s 1999.

Life is full of contradictions isn’t it?

Read Part II: “Food As Fuel: Eating Habits of Triathletes and Marathon Runners: How They Fit Food in Between Work and Working Out.”  This includes what triathletes and marathon and ultra runners to told me about their mealtimes: how many meals a day (usually more than three), when they eat (lunch is rarely at noon), how much they eat and the structure of a “perfect” endurance athlete meal.
Read Part III: Food As Fuel: Why Triathletes and Marathoners Eat so Weird According to Old Dead French Social Theorists. That’s my working title for Part III for now anyway.

In the meantime, here are some healthy unprocessed meal ideas from Opra Winfrey’s ex-chef and marathon runner Art Smith in the October issue of Runner’s World:Comfort Fuel (Runners World, October 2011)

Happy trails and, if you just finished a race,  “Cheers!”

Note: I do not benefit from mentioning or linking to any products or brand names mentioned in this post.

Resources

Applegate, Liz
   2006  “The Best Food For Runners”, Runner’s World, retrieved on September 24, 2008, from http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-242-301–10200-2-1X2X3X4X6X7-7,00.html
Applegate, Liz
   2008  “Liquid Diet,” Runner’s World, June 9, retrieved on September 24, 2008, from http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-242-302–12702-0,00.html
Atkinson, M.
   2008 “Triathlon Suffering and Exciting Significance,” Leisure Studies, April, Vol. 27, No.2, pp.165-180.
Blanchard, Kendall
   1995 Anthropology of Sport: An Introduction, Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, pp.31-224
Bourdieu, Pierre
  1984 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp.200-230
Burke, Louise M., Gregoire Millet and Mark A. Tarnopolsky.
  2007  “Nutrition for distance events, “ Journal of Sports Sciences, Dec. 15, 25,  Vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 281-300.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly
   1990 Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, p.77
Brownell, Susan
   2000  “Why Should an Anthropologist Study Sports in China?” Games, Sports, and Cultures, New York, NY: Berg
Douglas, Mary
   1975 “Deciphering a Meal,” Implicit Meanings: Selected Essays in Anthropology, 2nd Ed.,, New York, NY: Rutledge Classics
Fishpool, Sean
   2002 Beginner’s Guide to Long Distance Running, Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., pp.30-31
Fitsgerald, Matt
   2006 Performance Nutrition for Runners, Boston, MA: Rodale Press, pp. 1-151.
Giulianotti, Richard
   2005 Sport: A Critical Sociology, Malden, MA: Polity Press, pp. 4-165
 Goody, Jack
   1982 Cooking, Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, pp. 119-190
Hab, Mark D.
   2008 “Sports Nutrition: Energy Metabolism and Exercise,” JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, [J. Am. Med. Assoc.]. Vol. 299, no. 19, pp. 2330-2331.
Larkin, Duncan
   2007  “Interview with Scott Jurek”, Elite Running, February 22, retrieved on October 13, 2008, from http://www.eliterunning.com/features/54/
Leslie, Charles
   2001 “Backing into the Future,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol.15,No.4,
Maughan, Ronald J., and Louise M. Burke
   2002 Sports Nutrition: Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science, Malden, MA: Blackwell Science, Inc.
Mintz, Sidney W.
   1985  Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Prebish, Charles S.
   1993 Religion and Sport: The Meeting of Sacred and Profane, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports
   2004, Research Digest, Series 5, No. 1, retrieved on October 12, 2008, from http://www.fitness.gov/Reading_Room/Digests/Digest-March2004.pdf
Runner’s World
   2008  “Media Kit: Demographic Profile, Runner’s World, retrieved on November 26, 2008, from http://www.runnersworld.com/mediakit/rw/audience/demos.html
Ryan, Monique
   2007 Sports Nutrition For Endurance Athletes, Boulder, CO: Velo Press.
Scott, Dave
   2008 “Nutritional Fueling for an Ironman, “ Active.com, retrieved on September 25, 2008, from http://ironman.active.com/page/Nutritional_Fueling_for_an_Ironman.htm
Triathlete Magazine
   2008 “Print Media Kit”, Triathlete Magazine, retrieved on September 25, 2008, from http://www.triathletemag.com/Assets/2008PrintMediaKit.pdf
Triandis, Harry C.
   1995 Individualism and Collectivism, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 14-80.
Turner, Victor W.
   1964 Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage. In Magic Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, Seventh Edition, Pamela A. Moro, Arthur C. Lehmann, James E. Myers, eds. Pps: 91-100. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
   2005 “Nutritional Goals for USDA Daily Food Intake Patterns: Goal for Macronutrients”, Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, retrieved on September 27, 2008, from http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/report/HTML/D1_Tables.htm

Social reproduction of two ex-Ironman triathletes: Why our kids like sports

Our family has fun working out together.

This morning, after the kids and hubby left for school and office, I was thinking what a wonderfully wacky and athletic family we have.  Our kids, a 14-year old son and 11-year old daughter, actually wanted to get up at dark-thirty (in multisport terms that means “pre-dawn” which was 5:15 this morning) and hit the gym with their parents.  This isn’t every morning and usually my son sleeps in until the last possible moment before school or friends or sports drags him away from dreamland. I asked him why he wanted to get up so early. It was still dark! “It would be a fun way to start the day,” he said. “The jacuzzi and a swim just sounds so good right now.” Similar response from our daughter: she likes to get her workouts “done in the morning.” She’s been running regularly since last Thanksgiving and she joined the local club cross-country team this Fall.

Our kids think that running and working out every day is normal.

I think that is so cool.

But why do they like sports so much when some of their friends seem to be allergic to sea water, “hate running,” and couldn’t stay on a skateboard un-assisted for longer a second?

Pierre Bourdieu, a French anthropologist,  said the goal of a family, culturally speaking, is “social reproduction”. Whether it is our conscious intention or not, our kids repeat our lives in one way or another.

Social reproduction: Praxa and doxa

In An Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu’s ethnography of the indigenous Kabyle tribesmen of Algeria, Bourdieu explains his materialist (socioeconomic) and post-modern social theories within the context of interpreting Kabyle cultural practices (Bourdieu 1977:vii).  In particular, Bourdieu makes a decisive break from his French structuralist predecessors by analyzing the human agency and strategy behind the practices of his Kabyle informants, or, what Bourdieu calls their culture’s assembled practices or praxis. Bourdieu believed that “society is constructed by purposeful, creative agents” who create their culture “through talk and action” (Erickson 2008:187). He believed that a cultural group or a society is united in “systems of relationships” and praxis and that have a natural order or “orthodoxy” that is promoted by the dominant group or authority. He calls this cultural authority, it’s doxa (Bourdieu 1977:169).

Our family is a prime example of what happens when two athletic ex-Ironman triathletes have kids.

Our family praxis is based on working out together. There are usually workout clothes and sports equipment somewhere on the floor of our house, water bottles on the kitchen counters, HEED and Cytomax tubs in the cupboards and wet suits and beach towels drying in the tree by the backdoor. We “play” every day. Nearly, every day since they were born our kids have seen Mom and Dad leave the house for a run, swim, bike, surf or do some other physical activity, alone or with friends. By watching us, they’ve learned that working out is fun and makes them feel good afterwords. With friends, it’s like a playdate. Soccer, rugby, swimming, taekwando, running, and junior lifeguards, our kids have been on a competitive team of some kind since kindergarten. When not competing, they are usually doing some sport just for fun like surfing, playing around on their skateboards or riding their bikes around town with their friends. Working out is just part of our family’s daily praxis. It is a part of our daily routine like brushing our teeth is in the morning.

Our kids have seen their mother push herself to try qualify for Boston and have their seen their father race the Big Sur Trail Marathon with the flue. (He survived fine thank goodness. We figured he scared the flu right out of him with that run–the old “in-hospitable host” theory of flu recovery).  They have also seen their parents go back to school and take entrepreneurial risks so they can be more competitive professionally and happier personally. We have had set-backs, been injured, and have bad days like everyone else, but pushing ourselves physically and mentally is a positive value in our family’s doxa.

If all of that sounds too good to be true, I don’t blame you for thinking that.  But how did we get our kids to join us working out? How did we get them to not rebel against a parental and cultural hegemony that extols a healthy and athletic lifestyle?

They gotta wanna

I think it is, in part, just as Bourdieu said: social reproduction. Our kids are only mirroring what we are doing every day. If they saw us read, compose songs, drink a lot of beer with our friends, or work longer hours instead of working out in the outdoors–they would probably seek and mirror those behaviors instead.

But I also think their choices are due to our high expectations and use of constant positive re-enforcement.  We don’t make them go running with us because it’s healthy, we encourage them because it’s fun. We ask them to just give a sport a try for one season, and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to do it again.

The key is for us to encourage our kids to try new things, to  do their best, and to have fun.

Our daughter just started running regularly last year. Before that she really wasn’t in to sports. It was our idea when she was younger that she try soccer, Junior Lifeguards, and taekwando. Now, it’s her idea to go running and workout at the gym.

Our son got into soccer,  taekwando, and running, initially, because it was our idea. Now he runs and plays rugby because it is his idea. We tell our kids, “Just try it for one season. Do your best. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it next year.” If they don’t like a sport, that’s fine. It is important that they know that we are on their side.

It is also about those old fashioned words of parenting that I remember hearing when I grew up: “Just try it,” “Don’t quit,” and “Do your best.”  With the grueling cross-country races our kids have been enduring lately, our advice has been even more empathetic, “I know it’s hotter than hell out here and it sucks. Just do your best.” and “Don’t listen to that guy.  Just do your best.”  And, most importantly, and simply, “I’m so proud of you.”

The key for me is to make sure our kids’ main motivation is internal. They have to want to do well to really excel and be true competitors. They have really believe in themselves. As my old Masters swim coach in San Diego used to say, “You gotta wanna.”  Empathy coupled with high expectations are important values in our family doxa.

Old School

My childhood experience was not particularly athletic. As an admittedly non-athletic artist and family iconoclast who preferred books and horses to bicycles and health clubs, my single-parent mother  couldn’t relate to my desire to run the trails after school when I was a teenager. Or, to learn surfing, on my own, when I was 19. My mom didn’t even know how to swim. But to her credit, she always encouraged me and cheered me on  at dozens of cross-country races in high school and drove me to many a 5K and 10K race on the weekends. She allowed me to hang out at the beach, it seemed, nearly every single weekday, during the summer. She even bought me my first triathlon racing bike, a Specialized Allez, when I was in college. I rode that bike all over San Diego country in my twenties and decorated it with my product sponsor’s stickers. I heard “I’m so proud of you” a lot from her when it came to racing.

I’m an old school runner and triathlete. When I started racing, it wasn’t cool for girls to be a competitive runner. It was unusual. I was the only girl I knew to enter the first Los Angeles Marathon in 1986. My college training buddies were a Phi Delt and a Sigma Chi who were in my advanced running class. I think I was the only girl in that class, too. That first marathon was only two years after the first Olympic woman’s marathon ever at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. I did my first triathlon in 1987 as one of the few women in my age group and one of the few people who even knew what a triathlon was it seemed. I taught myself how to swim freestyle in Mission Bay in San Diego – trying to keep up with my roommate who grew up with a pool. Eventually, I found my way to the slow lane and some coaching at a local Swim Masters club in La Jolla. On the bike, I would train Dave Scott-style, usually alone, with a ziplock bag of Fig Newtons, a baked potato or a PB&J, stuffed into a fanny pack for long road rides and a bottle of water.  My training pals were usually athletic college students or young people trying to make money in the outdoor sports industry.

It’s an endurance sport culture

Nowadays, there are packs of brightly colored and jerseyed road cyclists all over our local highways each weekend morning. Nearly every town has their own running club, triathlon team and local Masters swim program.  Most of the multisport athletes, it seems are middle aged professionals. The doxa of American sport culture has changed since the days when I was a kid. Marathons, triathlons, and lately long-distance trail running (“racing ultras”) have gone mainstream (Helliker 2010).  Today there are about 1.2 million triathletes in the United States, up 51% from 2007, and according to last Sunday’s New York Times article, a third of them are men in their 40s (Gardner 2010). A few weeks ago, the Boston marathon sold out in less than eight hours. The proportion of women racing marathons have grown from 10% of the field in 1980 to 41% in 2009 (Running USA 2010). “Marathoning has soared in popularity in the United States. In 1976, 25,000 Americans finished marathons, according to Running USA. Last year, there were a record 467,000 American marathon finishers,” according to The Boston Globe on October 18th (Pepin 2010).

Our kids are turning out athletic like us. And, it appears to be national trend. Those wacky multisport events called “triathlons” and long-distance races we did in our younger years are conventional now. “Training for Ironman is the new golf!” an old Ironman training pal and multisport retail shop owner told me the other day, rolling his eyes.

I’m so grateful that both of our kids like doing endurance sports.  It has been so fun to workout together–as a family. I’m going to enjoy it as long as it lasts.

_________________________________________________________________________________
Resources

Bourdieu, Pierre, 1977 An Outline of a Theory of Practice, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, Pp.248.

Gardner, Ann Marie 2010 “Triathletes, Swim, Bike and Run for Youth,” New York Times, October 24, 2010, R12.

Helliker, Kevin 2010, “Making marathons even tougher,” Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2010; Retrieved on October 26, 2010, from: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703960004575427561884547420.html

Pepin, Matt 2010 “Boston Marathon sells out in a day,” The Boston Globe, October 18, 2010; Retrieved on October 26, 2010, from: http://www.boston.com/sports/marathon/blog/2010/10/boston_marathon_sells_out_in_a.html

Running USA 2010 “Running USA’s Annual Marathon Report,” Running USA; Retrieved on October 26, 2010, from: http://www.runningusa.org/node/57770

Triathlon Training Tips for First Time Triathletes

Now that we are entering the triathlon racing off-season, it’s a great time for people considering on doing their first triathlon to start building a fitness base and getting familiar with their new sport. This posting is an abbreviated version of one I posted last summer and it’s better suited to winter and spring off season training here in Southern California.

My personal philosophy for triathlon success is less “purchase” and more “practice”. It’s based on a daily practice of training one’s body within the rhythms of one’s daily life that includes work and family. During the late spring and summer racing season I call this the “Daily Practice of Triathlon Training”. By “daily” I mean that each day during the racing season has a fitness purpose. It is either a training day (making me stronger/faster) for a particular sport or a recovery (non-training) day (making me stronger/faster by letting my body re-build). During the Spring and Summer I train in one of the three sports six days a week. The seventh day is a recovery day for all three of the triathlon sports.

These tips are geared towards those who live in Ojai and Ventura, California but if you replace the triathlon store name and local triathlon club or running club name with one in your town, I think this list can be helpful for most people. Also, there are many excellent online resources for information and athletic inspiration for beginners, too.

If you are interested in more details on training and sports nutrition, please checkout RunnersWorld.com or Active.com/triathlon. Both of those sites have links to training schedules and performance tips for running road or trail races and racing triathlons.

Here is my advice for training for one’s first triathlon in 2010:

1. Research the sport.

  • Talk to Triathletes The best information I ever got about doing triathlons was from people I met while training, buying gear and racing. You generally get un-biased information when speaking with people who don’t have anything to gain by you purchasing something.
  • Go onlineSocial Media Sites Twitter.com and search “#triathletes” is a good way to find triathlon information from triathletes. Most are regular people just like you, online. It’s neat to pose a question (in 140 characters or less) on Twitter and have triathletes from all over reply back with a tip. I found online training schedules on these training social media web sites: dailymile.com, endurancejunkies.com , and buckeyeoutdoors.com (you can embed your training schedule in your blog–I haven’t tried this yet) and MapMyRun.com. I use dailymile.com.

    Websites Websites such as Active.com/triathlon and Multisports.com feature free tips and triathlon training schedules (some must be purchased).

  • Books Get a good triathlon training book to get an overview of the basics the sport and time managing the multi-sport workouts. Here’s a good one that a friend found for me at a garage sale: Triathlete’s Training Bible. but, I’m sure there are others, too.
  • Magazines Checkout Triathlete Magazine. There’s great training and nutrition articles and the race and athlete profiles inspire. Be aware that this magazine is product advertising-supported.
  • Learn by doing. Now is the time to experiment with new shoes, try a friends bicycle and to have fun with triathlon training. During the off-season your goal is to buildup your base and find out what gear works best for you.Training for a triathlon is a daily practice and you will learn how to do it best by trial and error. There are core principals about physiology and nutrition but every body is unique. What works for the Dude at the Triathlon Shop Who Has Done Ironman 18 times 😉 may not work for you. It’s necessary to get to know what YOUR body needs and how it performs by doing it and listening to it. Do your first Brick Workout (bike ride followed immediately by a short run) and find out what you can ingest to keep your energy consistent that doesn’t make you feel sick. Go for a bike ride on borrowed bike to test it out. Do a mini-triathlon on your own from your local pool. Just do it. The cool thing with triathlon training is that it is cross-training so as your individual running or swimming mileage may be less, you will have the additional benefit of training and getting stronger from the other two sports.

3. Daily Practice of Triathlon Training.

  • Consistency is key. The off season is a good time to get used to training once a day, six days a week. Now is a good time to experiment with new gear. It’s also the time to build up one’s endurance base. Triathlon training is a Daily Practice that will take some getting used to.
  • During the spring and summer each day will be a workout day. By Spring you should be used to training six days a week and fitting it into your work, school or family schedules if you can. The Daily Practice includes: your daily work out, your pre-workout food/beverage that is mostly carbs and easy to digest, your post-workout recovery food/beverage and sleeping more.

4. Become a member of a local triathlon, running or athletic club.

  • This is a good and socially fun way find out about local road rides/open water swims and have better access to find other tri newbies. Plus, according to scientific research, you will get faster and stronger training with others than if training alone.* Being a member of a training club may translate into other benefits such as club discounts on gear and race entries. Some of the more experienced or long distance triathlon club members may seem a little arrogant or hardcore to a beginner. Just don’t take it personally. It takes a lot of mental and physical focus to be competitive in the Ironman triathlon distance these days and that can take a toll on one’s social skills. The qualifying times Ironman and Nationals has gotten a lot tougher than when I started doing triathlons in the free-wheeling late Eighties. It seemed more fun in those days. Though training was just as tough (and in some ways more difficult without all the energy supplements they have these days) there were less people to race against and the triathlon community was smaller and friendlier to each other as crazy kindred spirits. We were considered nuts by non-triathletes in the early days of the sport.*See the article “Get Fitter with Friends”, The Economist Magazine, September 19, 2009, P. 92.

5. Swimming

  • Swim Training If you are new-ish to swimming, try to get in the water (lap pool, lake or ocean) at least 2-3x/week (30 minutes each) to build up your form & confidence. Do intervals if you can when in the pool. (I have some beginner swim workouts you can do to break up the monotony, too] Check out Active.com and look up swim stroke technique web videos and tips there or on youtube.com. Sometimes having a few pointers & practicing some swim drills can really make a difference in swim efficiency.
  • Swim Suit For women, the two-piece swim suites with the draw string bottoms are good and one-piece suites are fine, too but can get hot when your running.
  • Swimming Wet Suit If you don’t have a swim wetsuit, a surf wet suit can still work but won’t have the range of motion in it’s fit nor the sleeker less-resistant material for is best for swimming. Great quality swim suits are at Inside Track Multisports in Ventura and Hazard Cycle Sports in Santa Barbara for new ones. Inside Track Multisports and GoForItSports.com offer used wetsuit rentals for sale for a fraction of their new retail price if you are on a budget. I’ve heard that retailer Play It Again Sports in Ventura has had swimming wetsuits, too. Craig’s List and Ebay have been used successfully by friends for getting good quality used wet suits and gear, also. Wetsuits are not cheap but a good one that fits can transform non-tropical open water swimming from cold misery to comfortable fun. Swim wetsuites add buoyancy and speed, too. That is always a plus for me. There are a lot of quality brands with slightly different fits for different body shapes such as 2xu, Blue Seventy, Quintana Roo and others. I wear a Woman’s Blue Seventy. When I open water swim in the ocean during the winter with my Blue Seventy wetsuit and matching swim booties and neoprene cap I may look ridiculous, but I am never cold. If you are new to open water swimming or swimming with faster people, it’s a good idea to invest in a pair of swim fins. I swim with TYR Crossblades in the ocean sometimes. One more point about swimming open water: wear a swim cap. Sports Chalet and several online retailers such as Goforitsports.com sell them.I recommend wearing a brightly colored swim cap when open water swimming for two reasons:
  1. You will feel significantly warmer when swimming with a swim cap
  2. You will have a better chance of being seen and not run over by boater or surfer when wearing a bright colored swim cap

6. Cycling

  • Bike The bike, for non-road cyclists, can be tough hurdle for a beginner or cash-strapped first time triathlete. My best advice is to go to your local multisport or bike shop. A triathlon racing bike is not necessary to race in a triathlon. The tri-bike geometry has more severe angles for time trial efficiency on flat courses and with a proper fitting is slightly faster than a conventional road bike, but is not as comfortable to ride for long rides. A “traditional” road bike shop may not have the expertise in tri-bikes and their accessories. I ride 12-year old conventional road bike with “cross-country” geometry. To get faster, I train more. If you just need a bike, almost any bike that is safe to ride can help you achieve your goal of doing a short or Sprint triathlon this summer. You can even ride your mountain bike or a cross-bike. I don’t recommend riding a single-speed cruiser bike, though as they weigh a ton and you may need hand-brakes on the handlebars to compete in a triathlon. As long as you bought your bicycle from a reputable source and it has been safety checked by an established bike dealer such as Inside Track Multisports, Avery’s Open Air Bike Shop, or Trek Bicycles in Ventura or Hazard Cycle Shop in Santa Barbara, it should be fine. If you want to go fast on a bike, my best advise is to spend more time in the saddle, than buying expensive gear in a shop.
  • Bike Helmet You need a certified-for-safety bicyle helmet or you can’t participate in an organized triathlon race. Check out your local bike dealer or multisport shop for this. Your brain is the only one you got, so protect it with the best helmet you can afford. I’ve been in a bike crash before and my helmet (which hit the pavement–hard) probably saved my life.
  • Bike accessories to carry your food & water, etc. If you buy a new road bike you will need two water bottle cages, a seat pack with spare tube, allen tool & patch kit, frame pump, clipless pedals and shoes. You can wait on the clipless pedals and shoes but they allow you to make a more efficient (e.g. faster/more power) pedal stroke when riding. You can buy water bottles or re-use Gatorade bottles or small water bottles in an earth-friendly fashion.

7. Running

  • Races are “won” on the run Triathlons, at the elite level, are won and lost during the run. It’s during the last portion of the race, during the run, that the hours of daily training and preparation comes together. many triathlon pros believe that the last segment of the race, the run, is when real race begins. The cardiovascular conditioning benefits you get from running will transfer to swimming and cycling. However, your swimming and cycling muscular training won’t transfer to running. If your training time is limited (whose isn’t?), I recommend focusing on your running and swimming. You can’t “fake” either of these in a triathlon.
  • Local Running Clubs: Inside Track Running Club has daily groups running workouts for all levels of runners in Ventura and Santa Barbara Athletic Club is resource for local workouts in Santa Barbara.

8. Training for your first Sprint Triathlon

  • Plan ahead–at least six months before your first triathlon. Most Sprint distance triathlons also fill up so it’s a good idea to register for a race you are interested in as soon as you can. I usually register about six months before race day for the short races. For of the more popular and longer races (such as the Wild Flower Triathlon) you may have to register up to a year before. I think the Carpinteria Triathlon Sprint Course filled up about two months before the race this year (I registered for the September 27th race the first week of July).

 

  • If you are doing a Sprint Triathlon with a 5K run distance, I recommend going online to checkout a few 5K race training plans and modify them to your triathlon schedule. There’s a cardio-crossover benefit from cycling and swimming, so your running workouts should focus on building speed and endurance by doing intervals—but only after building up your base. Your “base” in reference to running, is how far you can run or jog comfortably for your longest run and run each week in total. Rule of thumb: do at least one speed or interval workout for running each week.

 

9. Weekly Triathlon Training Schedule for Sprint Triathlon

  • You can train for a triathlon in as little as 1 to 1 1/2 hours per day. Just make each day’s workout a quality workout and abide by the periodization principal (hard days followed by easy days, hard weeks followed by easy weeks, etc.)
  • Sample Training Week Here’s a sample week from my own standard training schedule from when I was racing regularly BC (“Before Children”).
  • Monday (Swim or Nothing–Recovery Day)
  • Tuesday (Run & Bike)
  • Wednesday (Swim)
  • Thursday (Run & Bike)
  • Friday (Swim or Run)
  • Saturday (Swim & Long Bike)
  • Sunday (Swim and Long Run, a triathlon or running race or Brick Workout (bike followed immediately after with a run, usually 10-24-mile bike/3-6-mile run)
  • Do not do a tough workout of the same type of activity two days in a row. When racing, I take Mondays off if I raced or did a tough Brick on Sunday. If I raced Saturday, I planned for Sunday being a recovery day, etc.

 

  • Brick Workout A Brick Workout (or just Brick for short) is when you combine a bike ride with a run afterwards in one long continuous work out with a few minute break just to change your shoes. Basically, you go for a bike ride, stop to change into your your running shoes (and drink water) and then start running down the road like you got rocks in your quadriceps. This sadistic workout prepares your body for race day both physically and mentally. It’s a tough workout and I recommend doing a recovery day/rest day after you do a Brick Workout.

 

10. Train with others if you can

  • It’s safer and you will usually be able to get a better workout when you train with others. This is especially true when open water swimming, trail running or road riding. And, it makes the workout time go by more quickly. In my experience, triathletes are usually just busier people in general (many run their businesses, have families, etc.) and training is their way of socializing, too. I’ve learned more over the years about training and racing from other triathletes while chatting in between workouts, than I ever have from a book, video, or web site. Word of mouth is best. And, it’s more fun, anyway.

11. Keep a Training Log or Schedule

  • Keep a training log. It keeps you on track when training towards a goal and it also gives one a sense of achievement. Even if it’s just jotting down “Run, 3 miles, hilly” or “Tuesday: Run- 5 miles, hilly, felt tired.” on your calendar, planner or Facebook profile or it’s worth the trouble. (You can also refer to your old training logs to track improvement progression or to help you remember how to train for a certain distance or weight loss or PR years later.) Good stuff.

12. Food & Beverages

  • Nutrition & fluid/electrolyte replacement: Don’t forget to drink enough water & always bring some source of carbohydrate for workouts longer than an hour (banana, bar, energy gel, cookies, orange, gummy bears, etc.). When it’s hot, make sure you replace electrolytes lost during perspiration (banana, a few saltines, Gatorade, PowerFul, enduro caps, Hammer HEED, etc) during rides or runs over an hour, too.
  • Sports nutrition is a practice: What and when you eat really does affect your training and can help or hinder your improvement. Triathlon is an endurance sport that requires a specific type of energy replenishment for your muscles while working out and for recovering from a workout. The most efficient form of energy for your body to process is carbohydrates. Triathletes, like runners, are known to eat lots of carbohydrate rich foods & food supplements that digest quickly: energy drinks, bagels, pasta, rice, energy gels, bananas, fig newtons, potatoes, etc. Monique Ryan and Liz Applegate are excellent sources of information of performance optimizing sports nutrition for endurance athletes. Check out Amazon.com for their books.
  • Before training/racing: Try to eat a easily digestible source of carbohydrate, about 200 calories for most folks, about 1-2 hours before working out. Give yourself about 16 oz. of water with your food to aid hydration and digestion. For long slow workouts, I can eat a banana or PowerBar while I’m running or riding. However, some people can’t eat when they run or bike. Trial and error is helpful here. Get to know what works for you.
  • After training/racing: You will recover faster and feel better if you get eat or drink a source of carbohydrates 30-45″ after a long (1 hour plus) workout or race. Just remember you have a 30″-45″ window after a tough workout to replenish with carbohydrates. Research shows that long distance (over 1 1/2 hours) training should be followed by carbohydrates and some protein) Even a food as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a great recovery food to have after a long bike ride or run or swim. Cold pizza is good, too. Especially on hot days when you need to replace electrolytes lost through perspiration.
  • Avoid drinking any alcoholic beverages right after you work out. Consuming alcoholic beverages after working out retards your body’s ability to rehydrate and recover from the workout. Replenish with water and nutritious foods first. Be kind to your body. It needs to recover from the stresses of training and racing with good stuff. Not beer.

13. Sleep more

  • You will need more sleep if you train every day (six workout days + one recovery day). Your body will require more of sleep for new tissue growth to deal with the physical stresses of training and the mental stresses of managing workouts and racing. If you don’t get enough sleep your immune system will weaken and you will be more likely to catch something and get sick. You won’t recover as well from your workouts, either. And, you will be tired and grumpy which messes up relationships. So, try to get to bed at least an hour earlier this summer while you are training for your first triathlon. That means usually 8 hours of beautiful, healing sleep. (Maybe more if you can get away with it.) Naps are good, too.

14. Triathlon Terms:

  • PR: “Personal Record” (Your fastest race time.)
  • WR: “World Record” (I’m glad they invented the term PR for the rest of us!)
  • PW: “Personal Worst” (Your slowest race time.)
  • Bonk: to run out of energy while exercising; to have an over whelming desire to stop moving and lay on the couch. Symptoms include feeling exhausted, dizziness, confusion, sleepiness, an over-whelming desire to sit under a tree and take a nap, grumpiness and sometimes, even tears. This is what happens when your body runs out of accessible blood sugar called glycogen that it needs to powers your muscles and to think clearly. You can avoid this awful state by making sure you have a source of easily digestible energy and water handy when working out such as bananas, energy gels and water or an energy drink. A good pre-race practice that helps me is to consume a banana or energy gel with a 16-oz. bottle of water about 30 minutes before race start.
  • Carbo Load: This is a pre-race rite of commensality (ritual meal sharing) that features a large meal of mostly carbohydrate-rich foods such as pasta, potatos or rice. It is generally shared with family members, loved ones or with other triathletes. It’s stated purpose is to increase your body’s glycogen stores so you don’t bonk in the following day’s race. It also reinforces the social solidarity and specialness of the triathlete as he or she prepares to athletically test his or herself at publicly during the race the following day.
  • Trigeek: a triathlete or wannabe triathlete who takes their athletic training and race performances bit too seriously for his friends and believes that upgrading to newer and more expensive triathlon gear and racing is more important than anything else.


15: Triathlon Race Distances (USA):

  • Sprint: 0.5k-swim/15k-bike/5k-run
  • Olympic: 1.5k-swim/40k-bike/10k-run
  • Long Course Santa Barbara Triathlon: 1mi-swim, 34mi-bike, 10mi-run
  • 70.3 or Half Ironman: 1.2mi-swim,/56mi-bike/13.1mi-run
  • 140.6 or Full Ironman: 2.4mi-swim/112-bike/26.2mi-run
  • Double Ironman (a multi-day stage race of double the Ironman triathlon distances): 5.4-m swim, 224-m bike, 52.4-m run


16: Upcoming Local Triathlons and Multiport Races

The best way to find local races online is Active.com which has an online database of just about every “all comers” triathlon, road race and other sports competitions in the United States. Printed race entries and flyers can be found on the “race table” at Inside Track Multisports in Ventura, CA.

You can find my daily workouts & multisport musings at: Twitter.com/multisportmama and Dailymile.com/people/multisportmama .

🙂 A

Post-Ironman transistions and altruism explained as an evolutionary adaptive behavior

I like helping people a lot. I discovered this after I finished the Hawaiian Ironman World Championships and tore my Achilles tendon while training to qualify for next year’s race. During this time in my life, each day was designated as either a training day or as a rest day or “lost day” when I couldn’t train due to work or other un-avoidable commitments. Basically, it was a life that was mostly about my triathlon training and my sales goals and outdoor industry social life surrounding my job at Diamondback Bicycles.

When the micro-tears on my right Achilles tendon threatened to turn into a permanent rip straight through the tendon that would require surgery and months of re-hab, I had to finally stop running and cycling. No more training rides or runs with my triathlon friends. I dropped out of Ironman Canada and focused on swimming Masters five days a week. I did that until I blew out my right shoulder. Then I had to stop swimming, too. It was a rough time for a while to not being able to do much of anything and missing my triathlon friends during the social road rides, trail runs and Masters swim workouts.

Soon after, I got pregnant with our first child who was born a big, blue-eyed and bald headed little boy. As a new mom I discovered the joy and reward of giving myself to helping another. Two and half years later our daughter was born and by then, I was in full-mommydom and basically never saw our old triathlon friends much at all. The tires on my Baby Jogger wore out before my road bike tires that I had bought brand new just before the first baby. Months turned into years between triathlons and I realized that I needed more than a daily workout or a race to feel alive and accomplished. And, I would rather spend hours with my kids than sitting on a bike seat far from home on a 50-mile training ride feeling guilty and rushed. For the next decade I stopped doing long triathlons and focused on an annual Sprint Triathlon or marathon race that I only had to train once a day for. One by one, my old triathlon friends were replaced by new parent friends that I met through our kids. I missed triathlon but going back to the level that I was at wasn’t possible with two little kids and a full-time job.

As the kids got older, they needed me less and things just got plain easier all around. In June 2005 I stopped working full-time and started volunteering more to exercise my altruistic care-taking muscles that I developed being a parent.

In 2005, husband and I started a non-profit organization to help survivors* of natural disasters the week after we returned from living through the Andaman Sea tsunami disaster with our kids during a family vacation in Thailand in December 2004. My husband gave our foundation a big name that reflected his big plans for it: Kirwin International Relief Foundation, or “KIRF” for short. But, it’s really just us two volunteering our time, writing grant proposals and infusing it with any cash we have left over from paying the bills. I like to think of KIRF as our way of doing something really rewarding with our lives and a way to excercise our altruistic muscles that needed to be worked out by the both of us since neither of us works in a classical “helping profession.” We fund sustainable and culturally appropriate projects that help people regain their economic self-sufficiency and we also purchase supplies that people tell us that they need after a disaster. The need I discovered for cultural competency when doing field work, of building rapport with the locals and the many inefficiencies and mistakes made by larger non-profits inspired me to pursue a masters degree in cultural anthropology at CSUN.

Since January 2005, we’ve helped out in seven countries: Thailand, India, Burma, Cambodia, Peru, Mexico, Tanzania and the United States. Most of our projects cost a few thousand dollars. In countries like Thailand, the exchange rate amplifies our buying power exponentially. For example, $10,000 in funds to purchase supplies in Thailand in January 2005 was like having $70,000 here in the United States. With about that much, we funded the rebuilding of a co-operative fish farm, and purchased dry goods, food supplies, school supplies and two fishing boats for three coastal villages that got destroyed by the tsunami flooding in Thailand as part of our tsunami relief work.

I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, you are going to heaven.” assuming that was my motivation. And, I’ve had others, mostly Thais, insist that we help others to gain merit (for good karma). Which isn’t really true–for me anyway. And, I’ve been asked more times than I can remember, “Why did you come to help us?” or “Why did you start your foundation?”

Honestly, I really didn’t (and to a certain extent, still don’t–sorry!) have a single or simple answer. When pushed for an answer I would often tell them that it’s our way of giving back since our lives were sparred during the tsunami disaster. But the real answer is that it just feels normal. and, it’s extremely rewarding and can even be lot’s of fun–albeit exhausting with 15-hour days of work while in the field and fundraising is always an un-fun challenge.

But, the truth is, it seems like the right thing to do. I hesitate to give that answer because I don’t want to imply that everyone has an obligation to help others by volunteering as a humanitarian. That’s judgmental, self-centric and as ludicrous as saying everyone has an obligation to have children, etc. And, that’s not how I feel anyway.

So, in my Evolutionary Anthropology course last semester I was delighted to be assigned a book that explained altruism from an evolutionary perspective: Unto Others: the Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior by Elliot Sober and David S. Wilson.

From an evolutionary standpoint, altruism can be explained as an adaptation that helps to promote survival. But, to promote the survival of whom? Certainly not the individual altruist according to this definition: “a person unselfishly concerned for or devoted to the welfare of others (Dictionary 2009).” This is true in our case at least, in that our “KIRF work” has cost us personally in time, money, and, even, this is difficult to say, but precious time away from our family and loved ones.

An altruistic act is one that gives others a reproductive advantage while putting the altruist at a reproductive disadvantage (Campbell 2/18/09). Yep, that’s us. By why do we do this?

According to scientists such as W. G. Hamilton, and many of the scientific community until the recently, altruism was best explained as an extension of individual selection and called “kin selection” (Moore 2001:58). Kin selection is an evolutionary adaptation to promote one’s genetic code by sacrificing oneself in order to help one’s kin (Sober 1998:58). Known as the “father of modern kin selection theory,” Hamilton was one of the first to promote kin selection as more in line with the new individual and genetically based evolutionary model called the Neo-Darwinian or Modern Synthesis Theory of Evolution (Moore 2001:166). The Modern Synthesis Theory combined Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection with heritability of traits and genetic research in the Twenties and Thirties. Richard Dawkins elaborated on kin selection and called it the “selfish gene theory” that claimed that we are “controlled by our genes whose only interest is to replicate themselves (Moore 2001:87).” However, kin selection, based on the modern syntheses’ gene-centric and individualistic theory of inheritance, does not explain the evolutionary adaptive altruistic behavior of non-genetically related (non-kin) individuals.

Group selection is the better theory in predicting altruistic behavior in humans and non-human primates according to Elliot Sober and David S. Wilson in Unto Others: the Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Group selection is “when an allele (or gene) increases in frequency if it bestows an advantage to the group, regardless of its impact on the individual (Campbell 2/25/09).” In other words, Charles Darwin had it right when he explained that a group of altruists would be reproductively more successful than a group of non-altruists. He didn’t specify that they had to be kin (Sober 1998:5). A population increases faster with more altruists according to John Maynard Smith with his Haystack model in 1964 (Sober 1998:68).

On the psychology side of research, studies done by Daniel Batson have shown that the key to altruism is not self-interest (genetic or otherwise) but is empathy. His research has shown that most people have an innate willingness to help a stranger when they feel empathetic about them (Richardson 2005:217).

And, back to the biologists, altruistic behavior is not limited to humans. Biologists have documented several examples of group selection with the presence of altruists increasing group fitness in non-humans. For example, the brain worm (or liver fluke) relies on the altruistic and suicidal behavior of several individuals in a population to promote its survival as a group (Sober 1998: 27). An experiment with guppies shows that even non-human creatures such as fish choose to associate with altruists. In the experiment, it showed that even guppies preferred the company of altruists of their own species who risked sacrificing themselves through dangerous predator inspection behavior. (Sober: 1998:140).” With that in mind, and the greater ability of humans to detect altruistic behavior through cultural transmissions and communication, (compared to guppies), helping others seems normal and biologically natural.

So, according to science, altruism is an evolutionary adaptive behavior that increases the fitness of groups in both humans and non-humans and it’s trigger is empathy.

That seems to make sense to me. I can’t tell you how many times, after helping a brave family by giving them some mundane items that I bought for them for their temporary shelter, after an earthquake or hurricane leveled their family home and turned their lives upside down, that I’ve had to fight back tears at their courage. And, I feel unworthy of their gratitude for the little that we could give. If there’s one thing that I know for sure (to paraphrase her Oprah Winfrey), is that doing disaster relief is living with lot’s of empathy. Too much at times It would be actually, easier to do my job helping others if I had less of it, from an emotional perspective. Just a few months ago, during Inauguration Week in Washington, DC, we helped out a transitional living facility (a fancy name for homeless shelter for little kids and their mothers) by purchasing and delivering play and educational supplies for the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project (HCPP). After playing with the shelter’s young residents one night, how I badly I wanted to do more for these kids who are being cheated out of so much in life. That part of being altruistic and feeling empathy is not easy at all. Yes, I cried.

But, it feels natural and so good to make a difference, too– even if its a little. At least, I know I did something. And, those that I helped know that I believe that they are worth helping. It’s not a lot but it’s good enough because I did my best.

Now, even science recognizes the worth of helping others, or altruism, and calls it “group selection”– an evolutionary adaptation that improves a specie’s fitness.

I find that re-assuring and cool.

Resources

Campbell, Christine
2009 Human Behavior: Evolutionary Perspective, Unpublished lectures for Anthropology 423, Spring, California State University, Northridge, CA

Dictionary.com
2009 “Altruist”, Dictionary.com, retrieved on May 14, 2009, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/altruist

Moore, David S.
2001 The Dependent Gene, New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company

Richardson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd
2005 Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Sober, Elliot and David Sloan Wilson
1998 Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

*I hate the term “victims” because it doesn’t recognize their often heroic efforts to prevail under truly horrific physical and emotional traumas; it’s undignified.

Why stress makes us sick and physiological and psychological stress-responses explained

According to Robert M. Sapolsky, “stress can make us sick (p.3).” His book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, explains what happens to humans and animals when they get stressed out from a physiological and evolutionary perspective that is both easy to read and scientifically rigorous. Why don’t zebras get ulcers? 
They don’t because they are adapted to what normally stresses them out: physical stressors such as getting chased by a lion or adapting to suboptimal calorie intake when they can’t find adequate forage. Unlike humans, they don’t routinely suffer from psychological and social stressors. Unfortunately for humans, we do suffer from psychological and social stressors, but, like the zebras, our stress-response is adapted to respond to only physical stressors. If zebras had to go to go war or worry about subprime mortgages, get a divorce, handle elder care and seek more job security (psychological and social stressors), they would probably develop ulcers, too. In this book Sapolsky combines the latest scientific research with humor and practical information, too.
Stress-responses are the body’s way of mobilizing energy using the endocrine system in order to cope with a perceived threat according to Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. 
There are three types of stressful threats: acute physical crises (like crashing on your road bike [happend to me] or breaking one’s fifth metacarpal while sparring in taekwando [happened to hubby]), chronic physical challenges (like making do with rice and water everyday for months like the Dalit kids my mother-in-law helps with her KIRF India foundation in rural Bihar, India or living the dulce vita as an upper-middle class gal on a starvation diet of cocktails and coffee drinks–and not dying) and psychological and social disruptions (stuff that runs the gamut from school or work stress, marital discord, elderly parent care, to being on constant alert as a soldier in Iraq or Afganistan…) (Sapolsky 2004:4). 
It is the last type of stress, psychological stress, that most people in industrialized societies like ours suffer from when they feel stressed. Unfortunately, our bodies have adapted to survive best when confronted with the first two physical types of stressers. This is why stress makes us sick. Chronic forms of psychological stress such as PTSD are a contributing factor to many of our modern ailments such as alcoholism, insomnia, heart disease, diabetes and depressed immune systems.
Symptoms of dealing with chronic psychological stressors are similar to the symptoms of dealing with chronic physical stressors. They include: elevated heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rates, a depressed immune system, a depressed sexual drive as well as a decrease in the rates of digestion, growth and tissue repair (Sapolski 2004:11). 
During chronic low-level periods of stress (like Finals Week or going through a home re-model that went south), sensitivity to pain is enhanced, insomnia is common and, sadly, for some, one’s appetite increases with a greater surplus of energy stored in one’s fat stores rather than spending it on good things like boosting one’s immune system. It really isn’t fair.
According to the latest research, stress makes “two-thirds of people hyperphagic (eating more) and the rest hypophagic”, according to Sapolsky (Sapolsky 2004:72). This is because different types of stress-responses affect the appetite differently. This distinction is important when it comes to my post-race bingeing research I mentioned in my previous posting.
When you are experienced acute stress, there are large amounts of appetite suppressant CRH and almost no glucocorticoids in your bloodstream (during the first moments of acute physical or psychological stress) and your appetite is suppressed. It is when the acute phase of the stress episode is over that the CRH in the bloodstream returns to normal. However, elevated glucocorticoid levels remain in the bloodstream for a while or are secreted by your endocrine system in response to “frequent intermittent stressors” such as psychological stresses and this increases appetite. 
Not only do people after an acutely stressful event eat more, they crave sweets according to the research of Elissa Epel of UCSF (Sapolsky 2004:76). And, what has a more pure form of sugars than alcoholic beverages? Stress can induce one to want to drink more than usual.
Saplosky emphasizes this point when he writes, “Glucocorticoids not only increase appetite but, as an additional means to recover from the stress-response, also increase the storage of that ingested food (Sapolsky 2004:76).” There you have it: Stress makes you fat.
Now, if you’re thinking “That’s me!” when it comes to craving sweets when stressed, I’m with you 100%. When it comes to chronic low-grade stresses, or that happy period of period of time after an extremely  stressful incident, you practically have to lock me out of my kitchen to keep me out of the cookies, corn chips and gin and tonic. I’m so predictable. But so are so many of my fellow humans at Dargin’s on a Friday or at the Pierpont Racquet Club (a health club mind you) buying pitchers of beer for each other after a stressful week working and working out.  
Personal Example: 
Two weeks ago, during Finals Week, the more I stressed, the more I craved sweets and the more I ate them. And, the more fat that seemed to be stored in my body as my Lucky jeans got tighter and tighter the more I stressed about that, too. On my last day of finals,  after a week of staying up late studying and stressing  AND not fitting in my favorite jeans, I got more stressed out, thereby releasing more of those nasty appetite enhancing glococorticoides in my body. Next thing I knew, I was famished for that bag of Mission Corn Chips in the kitchen and another fresh cinnamon roll from Saturday’s farmers’ market. For a week, around and around the stress cycle went pushing me closer and closer to the adult-onset (type-2, non-insulin-dependent) diabetic lifestyle: over-eating, physical inactivity and chronic stress (Sapolsky 2004:66).
Fortunately, Finals week was only a week. I’m happy to report that my jeans are fitting a little bit better and I’ve worked out every day since my last final. Thank goodness.
🙂 A
References
Sapolsky, Rober M. 
2004 Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition, New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.