My relationship with food has always been one of excess. I grew up in an era when stay at home moms were common. My mother was the consummate home maker and was always baking and cooking up a storm.
I was always taller and bigger than most kids at primary school and was known as “Jumbo”, although looking at this picture I wasn’t overweight. I played soccer in one of the lower teams mainly as a defender or goal keeper during winter. I didn’t play a summer sport but spent hours outdoors, swimming (we had a large pool) and cycling around the neighbourhood visiting friends.
I then moved onto high school and spent my first 3 years (std 6-8) playing rugby in the winter months and in summer, took tennis lessons, spent hours in our large pool at home and cycled miles visiting friends and even to school, I was very active. We always ate healthily as children, but I was always hungry, the term “eating one out of house and home” doesn’t really describe it. My mother took to hiding the biscuits, snacks and sweets, but I would always find them somehow. I never knew when to stop.
My father was transferred to Pretoria and I had the great privilege of completing my schooling at Pretoria Boys High School where I played rugby for the 1st XV in my matric year. In the lead up to my matric year I was selected as part of the 1st XV training squad. We did off-season gym work and bulked up. My eating habits hadn’t changed. I was starving most of the time and would think nothing of downing a litre of milk out of the carton and eating anything and everything in sight.
By the end of my matric year, I had lost all my puppy fat and found it hard to hold the opposition in the scrum, as a result of the constant fitness and training sessions that go with being in the 1st XV.
I matriculated in 1983 with university exemption and went to UP where I read for a B Comm Business Computer Science degree. I played for the UP U21 side in my 1st year but decided to stop playing and focus on my studies. In the middle of my 2nd year my parents moved to Cape Town and I moved into residence where I made friends with a student who was a Northern Transvaal biathlete.
I did a couple of 5 and 10 km races with him and then we decided to enter a half standard triathlon. It was my first triathlon and the bug bit hard. After graduating I moved down to Cape Town, where I found work as an articled clerk with an auditing firm. I started training for and racing triathlons and by the end of my 2nd year of racing had made the Western Province A team and been awarded Junior Springbok colours. My eating habits had improved, lots of vegetables, salad, lean meat and carbohydrates. I could get away with eating carbohydrates as I was expending so much energy training and racing.
I weighed 85kgs and my body fat was sitting at 5%. I was a racing snake. I finished regularly in the top 10 nationally and my defining moment was placing 2nd at South African Championships held at Club Mykonos. South Africa was blacklisted from competing internationally and although we had a few rebel triathletes from overseas who were invited to race here, as SA triathletes we were never going to compete overseas. I decided after 3 years to hang up my running shoes and focus on my career. This is when the downhill slide started. I then met my future wife, and after 3 years of training and racing (living like a monk), stopped all exercise, and let my hair down. I continued to eat as if I was still racing and training but wasn’t expending anywhere near the calories I used to.
By the time we got married, I was no longer a racing snake. As a young couple, both working and trying to build a life, we ate out a lot and ordered in from Steers, Butlers etc. because it was easy and convenient. I still wasn’t doing any exercise and started smoking.
Our son was born in 1997 and we decided, jointly, that Heather should be at home for at least his first 3 years. I was now confronted with being the sole bread winner and didn’t handle the pressure very well. I sought comfort in food and frequently used to binge on junk food in secret, as I tried to deal with the pressure of being a new father and worrying about being the sole bread winner. I was smoking about 10 cigarettes a day at this point. I was also suffering from mild depression at the time, but was totally unaware of it.
We ended up moving overseas for a period of 6 years (UK, NZ and then Australia). Things on the job front were not stable in the UK, I was made redundant by one company and only to join another company that was put into receivership. This was probably the toughest period in my life, and I sought solace in food. Weighing in at 128kg’s with a blood pressure of 175/90, I was well on my way to an early grave. Not only had I disrespected myself, but also my family, by letting it get to this point. I had lost my true self. I had zero energy which prevented me from playing with my son, I was very conscious of my weight, I had panic attacks while in public places, and I was mildly depressed. I had lost confidence in myself, both as a husband and a father.
After 3 years in the UK we moved to New Zealand. I stopped smoking and started Tae Kwondo (Beverley Hills ninja had nothing on me), bought a rowing machine and the long road back started. After 2 years in New Zealand we moved to Australia for a year. We didn’t have a car and used public transport to get around. We walked to the shops on weekends to do our weekly shop and caught a bus to a local organic market on a Saturday’s to buy our produce. My eating habits and health started to improve, and I started running again. At the end of 2006 we returned to South Africa after spending a year in Australia.
Reflecting on our period overseas, a lot of South Africans don’t realise how tough it is to adjust to living in a new country, it can be a real struggle. Weather in the UK is not conducive to all year around outdoor exercise, there is a huge emphasis on cheap convenience foods and gyms are not as accessible or affordable as here. We identified more with NZ and Australia as we have more in common with them – they are sports crazy and the climates are similar.
I started running again and entered two half marathons. My weight had dropped to 120kg’s but was not shifting, even though I was running regularly. My eating habits had improved, but I still fell off the wagon every now and again and had to pick up the pieces up and start over again. I injured my achilles tendon running my 2nd half marathon, and decided to rest it for a month. It just wouldn’t heal and after 3 months, I got frustrated, and bought a costume in desperation and started swimming by myself at Seapoint Pavillion. After a few months swimming by myself, I joined a master’s swim squad, and was so embarrassed by my body shape and moobs that I wore a rashie until it eventually fell off me. To my surprise, the weight fell off me and after a year of swimming my weight was down to 112kg’s. I put this down to the fact that I was training early morning (5:30 a.m.), my body was coming out of fasting overnight and not eating before I train. Squad session is an hour and a half long and we typically swim 4 to 4.5 km.
I was at this point getting fitter, losing weight and feeling a lot better about myself. I started entering open water races and discovered that the training was paying off. Open Water swimmers are also some of the most supportive, motivated and focussed people I have ever come across, an incredible bunch of people, who have inspired me to take on challenges I would never have dreamed of doing.
I was then invited to swim the length of the Breede River from its source to the river mouth, a total distance of 315km. The plan was for 3 of us, to spend 3 weeks (6 days a week, 1 rest day) averaging 15km a day backed up by land and water based support staff. We started training in earnest for the swim and averaged between 40-50km’s a week in the last month of training. It was the biggest adventure to date in my life, and a lot changed for me in those 3 weeks. My weight dropped to 105kg’s, I became less body conscious and more conscious of what was important to me. My confidence was back.
I joined a proper swim squad for 2 seasons and trained with one of our top local open water swimmers. 5-6 sessions a week sometimes two sessions a day averaging anywhere between 8-12km’s a day. Great if you are in your 20’s, but at the age of 45, I was finding it tough to recover between sessions. I got incredibly fit and fast, at first the performance gains were insane, but I only lost a few more kilograms as I was still eating way too many carbs and was hooked on Future Life. I swam some of my best times nationally, in the 3 and 5km open water races, but eventually the wheels came off and I moved on and re-joined a master’s squad where I currently swim 4 times a week.
Another defining moment in my life, March 2016, I got divorced after 23 years of marriage.. My ex-wife has a condition called Porphyria, which necessitated that most of our meals were carb based (pastas, rice, potatoes, pulses). I got to choose how I ate now.
I dropped all carbs (rice, pasta, bread, pulses) and simple sugars from my diet and focussed on eating fresh vegetables, salad, meat, fish and eggs. The only fruit I eat now, are bananas and grapefruit. Sweet and baby potatoes are the only real carbohydrate I eat, as I still need to fuel my swimming somehow. I use honey in my tea and coffee. I have lost an extra 8-10 kg’s in the last year and a half just by changing up my diet and dropping carbs and simple sugars. I now weigh 95kg’s and my blood pressure is 135/90. I still have 5kgs to lose to reach my goal weight, but it’s a journey and every day presents new challenges, lows, highs and wins.
What has worked for me
- Training coming out of a fast i.e. early morning, no pre-training snack.
- Discipline and routine, unless you are ill. Getting up for early morning sessions when your body aches from the previous session and its dark outside, you won’t regret it, best way to start the day.
- Surround yourself with like-minded people, it motivates and inspires one.
- Litre of water first thing in the morning straight after you get up, jump starts the metabolism.
- HFLC diet. Cut out all simple sugars and limit your in-take of carbs (sweet potato, coconut flour, baby potatoes). No cakes, chocolates (only 85% and up and never at night), pastries, confectionery. Limit carb in-take in the evening, rather eat carbs in the morning or at lunch time.
- Start the day with a high protein meal. I always have either 2 poached eggs or 4 egg omelette cooked in coconut oil, a whole avocado and sometimes bacon. Kick starts the metabolism.
- Refuel within an hour of a training session.
- Limit your coffee in-take to no more than 2-3 cups a day, also boosts the metabolism. Last one before 14:00.
- Stay away from protein shakes and sports drinks, unless they are clean (no sugars or anything that will make you glow in the dark).
- Rest days are important. I do core and limited swim specific strength work (body weight only).
- Stretch. I stretch 3 times a week for 45 min to an hour on rest days.
- Set goals. It’s important to work towards a goal, be it personal, a race, a PB, a record, a charity.
- Set goals that will take you out of your comfort zone (a Robben island crossing, a ultra- marathon/triathlon). In my case it was swimming the length of the Breede River. It will alter your life.
- Do it for yourself.
- Everything in moderation, including exercise.
|Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday||A.M.||Swim for an hour and half (4-4.5 km) with a squad. Average 20km’s a week.|
|Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday||P.M.||45 mins of high intensity spinning, maintain 100 rpm or higher and kwh 220-290|
|Monday, Wednesday, Friday||A.M.||Swim specific strength work, body weight and Theraband.|
|Monday, Wednesday, Friday||P.M.||45-60 mins of swim specific stretching and foam roller.|
"Falling off the wagon"
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