Mindset and Muscle Gain: An Extended Journey
Updated: Feb 22
Left: 123 lbs., 18.6% BF, 96.1 lbs lean mass (Feb. 2020)
Right: 135 lbs, 17.9% BF, 106.8 lbs lean mass (Feb. 2021)
This DEXA scan information was taken one year apart (Feb. 2020 and Feb. 2021)
The end of the story is that it took me over one year to gain 12 pounds, 10.7 of those pounds being lean mass (muscle). It took re-evaluating my life goals and who I was at the moment I had lost so much, to see where I needed to go. I learned that calorie restriction made me weaker, whereas being well-fed made me stronger. Today I'm the happiest I've been in my adult life. I'm eating a balanced diet of mostly whole foods (and some baked goods!) without restriction, hitting personal records lifting, and enjoying training. I'm looking forward to crushing a multitude of athletic goals that have eluded me for half a decade. It feels good to feel good.
And now, the back story.
I first started having trouble swallowing in 2016 at a 48-hour long endurance event called GORUCK Selection. It was late night, and I remember not being able to hold anything down. I couldn't even drink water. Everyone, me included, thought that it was just a symptom of extreme exhaustion. I was medically removed from the event, and life went on.
Three and a half years flashed by and not swallowing became so normal to me that I barely even noticed it was getting worse. Instead of merely having some difficulty getting food down, I was regurgitating food involuntarily.
2019 was the tipping point. I was still attempting to compete in endurance races but was suffering from dizziness, extreme fatigue, cramping, and dehydration. Though I tried to cover it up, everyone around me could see that I wasn't able to swallow. When I was medically dropped from a fifth attempt at GORUCK Selection in October 2019, I finally admitted to myself that what was happening was not normal.
During this esophogram in January 2020, it became evident that my esophageal sphincter was no longer functioning; everything I tried to swallow was immediately regurgitated.
February and March 2020 were a blur. Not only was I losing weight fast, the lack of food was affecting my brain function. I'd get dizzy walking my dog and lose concentration easily. I was performing terribly at my job as a Program Manager and eventually had to resign.
In late March 2020, I was scheduled for an endoscopy where the doctor would stretch my throat. I rolled into the operating room at 115 pounds.
The day after my procedure, I was able to swallow food and water without trouble.
Now the real work started.
How does a person start eating normally again after having trouble eating for years, then basically starving for three months?
At first, it was easy. I was so excited to be able to eat, I filled myself with all the whole foods I had missed.
When I started gaining weight though, I got scared. I looked a certain way, and had lost so much weight that I thought it wasn't necessary for me to put on weight again. I started restricting calories and felt terrible.
At the same time, I was studying for a certification in nutrition coaching (Precision Nutrition Level 1) and learning about mindset and weight. I realized that I had certain ideas about body image which were affecting my ability to be ok with gaining weight. I associated being heavier with not performing as well in endurance events. I believed I was finally at a leaner "Olympic runner" weight, and would be able to run much faster.
But as I got deeper into the science, I knew that in order for my body to thrive, I needed to gain weight. The truth became evident when I took a look at the data. Before I was sick, a DEXA scan I did in 2018 indicated I had 112 pounds of lean mass. The DEXA scan I had done a month before my surgery (I would still lose 8 more pounds!) indicated I only had 96 pounds of lean mass; a 16 pound difference! I was performing well in 2018 and wasn't experiencing everyday swallowing trouble just yet, so I'd use that scan as a baseline of a "healthy" me in the year to come.
I started reflecting on why I held the beliefs that I did about body image. When I dug deep down into it, I had these ideas because of the images I surrounded myself with and what was defined by other people as an ideal body. I decided it was time to delete Facebook (I couldn't control what I was seeing) and restrict what I was looking at on Instagram and in other media. I put myself in a bubble of beautiful, strong, women that I followed, read, and watched. This small action helped me shift my mindset and see myself more clearly.
Ironically too, at this new light weight I was NOT running faster. I was barely running at all at all because I didn't have energy.
Over the course of the next year, I'd take a circuitous path to arrive at where I am now. I fluctuated in weight and sometimes fell back on restricting calories. But I'd pull myself out of those habits and eat, because I knew I needed to gain weight in order to gain muscle and perform optimally again. I stopped ridiculing myself for gains and became comfortable with what I looked like.
In late October 2020, I began lifting heavy 5 times a week and running less. I ate more calories and did my best to not judge myself based on the number I saw on the scale. The next month I hired a nutrition coach from "Working Against Gravity" so that I could have a guide in my journey.
GORUCK Ft. Bragg Double Heavy, Jan. 2021
In January 2021, it was my goal to finish a 24 hour endurance event. I did that, and added another 10 hours as a test (34 hours seemed good to me!). I felt strong and energetic the entire event. It was a feeling I hadn't experienced in a very long time. I know that I did well because I had been eating without restriction for 10 months prior to that.
In February 2021, I returned to the same DEXA machine where I got scanned a year before. As you can see above, the numbers tell the story.
These days, I'm stronger, faster, and mentally healthier. During the last year I started my own coaching business to help others move past their own health and fitness challenges. Though I was not voluntarily depriving myself of food, I now have a very intimate understanding of what starvation and calorie restriction does to the mind and body. I plan to use that knowledge to be a better coach. Being well-fed is a beautiful thing, and I spread that message with joy and perspective.
Well-fed, lifting a 155 pound sandbag; February 2021.