Nutritional Pitfalls on the Athlete’s Journey

 In

Chef Stephanie Michalak, Turner Farm Culinary Manager

The reason I started martial arts at four years old was because I wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. However, once I realized that option was biologically impossible, I settled on becoming a Power Ranger. For a four-year-old, this seems entirely logical, but it was certainly not the reason I continued the sport until I left home for college. The karate studio became like a second home where I learned discipline, responsibility, and respect for myself and others. Over the years, I competed individually and on demonstration teams (lovingly called demo teams) regionally and nationally.

I certainly dedicated a lot of time and effort into martial arts, but as I transitioned to high school I found passions for volleyball and ultimate frisbee. Honestly, I wasn’t great at volleyball, but what I lacked in natural talent (I was 5’2” in high school and my vertical ups are unimpressive), I made up in effort and energy—getting the nickname “Scrappy” from my coach and being voted captain of the JV team in my sophomore year.

Luckily, I did find I had a knack for ultimate frisbee… and yes, it’s a lot more than throwing a disc across a quad between classes. I was on the first all-girls high school frisbee team in Connecticut, so we routinely played co-ed teams. Our training focused a lot on technique, communication, and the ability to use our game-smarts. I loved the game, the comradery, and the wider ultimate frisbee community.

But I’m not writing just to tell you about my outdated athletic record. I want to talk about the lack of nutritional understanding in tandem with a hyper-competitive neurosis that almost killed me by the time I was 16.

Essentially, I spiraled from a healthy, driven athlete to an obsessive, malnourished cluster. While I was in my spring semester of my sophomore year in high school, I was striving to be faster, stronger, and more fit—spending mornings running roughly five to seven miles before classes, sometimes squeezing in a workout midday, and then typically a two-hour afternoon team practice.

Short-term gains from running and being so obsessive allowed me headspace, faster times, and honestly, I felt physically on top of the world. Earlier in the year, I had gone vegetarian. This was primarily because I found the American food system a disaster, but secondarily, it was a bet with a friend. Either way, my diet and exercise regime had me hyper-critical of what I put into my body. When it came to food, I became fearful of putting the wrong thing in me and I began running on fumes. By summer, I couldn’t even run anymore. I went from roughly 115 pounds to 95 pounds over a few months. I’m sure my parents were terrified. I knew I had a problem.

Ultimately, I sought help but received mixed advice nutritionally that ranged from condescending to marginally helpful. This part of my journey wasn’t about feeding ‘an athlete’: it was about staying alive. I gained necessary weight but remained extremely thin afterwards for years, and probably screwed up my metabolism in the process. Obviously, this process forced me to have a new relationship with food and how I needed to feed myself—for life and the passion I had for sports.

Post-high school, college, and graduate school I still have a lot of sport-related hobbies ranging from biking, hiking, weight-lifting, rollerblading, and frisbee. It’s important to understand how food fuels your body and how you can use food as a tool to obtain your goals healthfully and enjoyably. Just know that it is a process and we all have our own fitness journey—I hope yours is filled with delicious food.

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Learn more about properly fueling your body for optimal performance with delicious and nutritious foods at Chef Stephanie’s “lunch-and-learn” class, Feeding the Athlete in You on Tuesday, April 3.