Tom Aylward chops red peppers, rinses baby spinach leaves and boils water for pasta. As he briefly sautés the vegetables in rosemary, garlic and olive oil, Aylward stands over the pan, stirring.
“Mmmmm,” he says. “Doesn’t this look good?”
That’s a dramatic difference from a year ago, when the Spirit Lake man insisted no one would make him eat vegetables. He stuck steadfastly to a meat-and-potatoes diet and ate fast food twice daily.
But now, as the 62-year-old prepares his body to compete in his first Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene on June 26, he’s trying foods like green beans, broccoli and avocados for the first time. For Aylward, acquiring healthy eating habits has been more difficult than learning how to run, bike and swim competitively.
Aylward’s trainer, Shawn Burke, knew nutrition would be a challenge for his client from the day they met in August 2009. Aylward, who had never exercised regularly, sat opposite Burke eating grilled ham-and-cheese, “something fried,” and a Coke, while asking to be trained for one of the nation’s toughest endurance races.
“I’m like, ‘OK, we’ve got some work to do here,’ ” Burke recalled, laughing. Ironman contenders swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, then run a marathon.
Nutrition and fitness experts say putting the wrong food and drink into your body – both ahead of the race and on race-day itself – is a top reason athletes don’t finish races. Athletes whose bodies have become accustomed to certain foods might not tolerate the foods and energy drinks offered at aid stations along the race course, said Ironman Race Director Mac Cavasar, himself a four-time finisher.
“We lose more people to stomach problems than we do to injuries,” Cavasar said. “They’re the ones you see vomiting over the jersey barriers.”
When Aylward first started training, he said, he’d skip breakfast, then hit McDonald’s around noon for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, french fries, a Coke and, sometimes, a chocolate sundae for dessert.
Now he has a different routine. His day starts with a bowl of plain oatmeal, a slice of toasted whole-grain bread topped with all-natural peanut butter, and a fruit smoothie made from berries, yogurt, 1 percent milk, whey protein powder and flaxseed. In January, he began a diet designed to reduce stomach fat, but skipped through the book, he said, because the menus included ingredients he didn’t like.
His path to healthy eating has been frustrating, but also marked with milestones. A month ago, blood tests showed the man who used to take drugs for his above-200 cholesterol had dropped it down to 168.
“It’s perfect,” Aylward said with a smile.
Burke encouraged Aylward to eat a diet made up of 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fats, designed to spur weight loss and build muscle. Every two weeks, Aylward’s body composition is measured to ensure he’s losing fat, not muscle.
Those percentages constitute a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, said Janet Beary, director of Washington State University’s Coordinated Program in Dietetics in the Nutrition and Exercise Physiology division. Beary said the American Dietetic Association recommends endurance athletes consume 20-25 percent fat, 20 percent protein and 55 to 60 percent carbohydrates.
“Carbohydrates are getting a bad name, and it’s the simple sugars and the fast-food type that’s really the bad name,” she said. “Whole fruits and vegetables that provide vitamins and minerals are necessary in our diet (along with) legumes and whole-wheat bread.”
However, Beary said, dietitians must be careful not to scare off people who are learning proper nutrition for the first time. Beary said she teaches students to find out what new patients are willing to do and work with them to make positive changes. After hearing about Aylward’s situation and progress, Beary commended Burke for the plan he put in place and the progress Aylward has made.
“He has made huge changes in his life – huge,” she said. “Somebody that was sedentary is now exercising. Somebody that hasn’t eaten fruits and vegetables is now eating fruits and vegetables. That’s amazing to me. He needs to be congratulated. What a wonderful example to others.”
One of Burke’s first actions was to have Aylward wear an electronic monitoring device called a BodyBugg, which measures the steps he takes and the calories he burns. Aylward inputs information about the food he eats into a computer program, and it measures the calories burned versus those consumed.
Over the past 30 days, Aylward consumed an average of 3,166 calories a day and burned 4,659, for a deficit of about 1,500 calories.
Burke has told Aylward the optimum deficit for weight loss and muscle building is closer to 500 calories and that he has to eat more to achieve that. “In order to burn fat, you have to feed your body. It’s like a furnace,” Burke said. “You have to keep feeding that furnace.”
But Aylward, who has lost 80 pounds over the past 18 months, struggles with that concept in his desire to lose more weight. “I still think if I eat less, I’ll lose weight,” he said.
That’s a common misconception that athletes sometimes have a hard time overcoming, Beary said. “It makes athletes feel kind of funny when I say … if you want to lose weight you actually need to increase your calories,” she said. With too great a deficit, she said, “The body thinks you’re in starvation mode so you can work and work and work to lose weight and it’s all about the body wanting to preserve itself. The body is trying to sustain itself and live.”
Burke said that throughout Aylward’s training program, he has focused on helping his client make permanent lifestyle changes. “I know if I can get him to change that diet, it will save his life,” Burke said. “That’s where the big change is. Physically he’s doing really well.”
Burke remembers a time in April when Aylward’s body shut down while training. He had no energy and no endurance to finish the day’s exercises, and Burke had him quit working out for four days to recover and think about his nutrition. For months, Burke had been counseling him on what to eat and constantly reminding him to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and to refuel with protein after exercise.
Whenever Aylward told Burke he was sore, Burke would ask whether he’d eaten any protein. The answer was frequently no. Burke said he had to teach Aylward basic nutritional principles, such as how protein grows and repairs cells, including muscles.
“His body was shutting down,” Burke recalls. “We would go out there and exercise and he would just start dying on me. He would say, ‘I should be getting stronger.’ I’d say, ‘Tom, it’s because you’re not eating right.’ I’d keep telling him, but he wasn’t getting it.”
The four days off became a turning point. After that, Aylward began cutting out the fast food and replacing it with more fruits and vegetables, nuts and other protein-rich foods like eggs and lean meats. He’d seek out healthy sandwiches instead of fat-rich foods. He began keeping protein shakes in his car to swig after workouts.
Aylward’s weight has hit a plateau over the past three months, hovering between 237 and 241. He’d like to reach 210 before race day so he won’t be carrying those extra 30 pounds over all those miles. Though he thinks he’ll get there, he also said that’s not his final fitness goal.
He’s planning to sign up for races, shorter triathlons and half-marathons stretching through the summer and into the fall, after Ironman is done.
“I’m not quitting,” he said. “This isn’t just a one-time shot for me anymore. It’s my life as long as I enjoy it.”
Aylward said seeing obese people on the exercise bicycles at the gym used to repel him, perhaps because they reminded him of himself at 319 pounds. Now, he said, he wants to approach them.
“I want to say, ‘Welcome to the journey.’ ”