Taylor Ritzel is an elite rower; she was a member of the Olympic gold medal winning Women’s 8 in London 2012. Since 2012 she has radically changed the way she trains along with squarely facing some of her “diet demons". Taylor is making a bid for a 2016 Olympic spot with Sara Hendershot as a rowing pair, and in a growing trend they’re using both Paleo & CrossFit to get there. In this article Taylor talks about walking away from conventional training wisdom, eating Paleo/Primal, CrossFit, and challenges for female Paleo athletes.
Sara Hendershot and I chose to leave the U.S. Women’s National Rowing Team last spring, something that is never really done in the universe of US women’s rowing. The women and coaches there are some of the best in the world and if you can make it in that system you will do well internationally.
We left because the overarching theme of training with the WNRT is volume, volume, volume, and we left because neither of us could stay healthy long enough to achieve our individual goals or what we felt was our full potential.
In order to walk away from such a successful program, we had to have a plan for Rio 2016 that we felt would work. That plan consists of 3 elements: Diet, Exercise, and Mental Toughness. No one element is more important than the others; they all work together to support each other.
I’ll start with our diet. Sara and I have been eating Primal (Paleo with high quality dairy) since March of 2013. We took a few months to slowly reintroduce dairy into our diets to make sure that we could both handle it.
The hardest part of the transition to a Paleo based lifestyle was the lack of sweets. If a food has sugar, I wanted it. For a few years, I would eat strict Paleo meals but then eat whatever dessert I wanted, telling myself it still “counted.” Now, I realize that I was feeding my cravings instead of working to alleviate them.Photo courtesy of Nomnompaleo
What I’ve found on this journey into Paleo and away from massive training volume is the more I learn, the less I know. There is so much science behind performance nutrition (good and bad) that it’s not quite as simple as an eat-this and don’t-eat-that list.
Sara and I have very different body types and extremely different energy systems. She can process fat and protein like nobody’s business, yet I seem to hold on to them for dear life. Paleo has given us a great framework in which to base our food choices, now it’s a matter of experimenting and figuring out what works best for each of us at different points throughout the day.
If women out there are looking to get fit and lean out, my biggest piece of advice is not to treat Paleo like a diet, treat it like a lifestyle. Eating this way isn’t about a quick fix or losing weight; my weight has yo-yo’d quite a bit since eating strict Paleo.
Eating this way is about feeling good, supporting top quality performance, and only as a by-product, looking good. Trust me, if you feel good and increase your performance levels you WILL look good.
The biggest transformation once you start getting serious with Paleo will be how you feel and how you are able to perform. Don’t worry about being perfect, but know that the more you resist your cravings at first, the easier it gets to eat foods that make you feel better and better. It’s pretty cool!
Just because we felt the WNRT’s emphasis on volume was too much doesn’t mean we’ve given up on training volume; we still spend a LOT of time on the water because rowing is an extremely technical sport and takes years to perfect.
What we do differently is to incorporate a lot of Olympic lifting, CrossFit WODs that help drive home rowing mechanics and additional cross-training when needed. We are amongst the first elite rowers to incorporate CrossFit into our training consistently.
I know exercise routines are one of the most boring things in the world to hear about it, so I’ll leave it at this; enough quality rowing time coupled with good quality supporting exercises in other domains.
Eating strict Paleo and training the way we do are key components in our push towards the Rio Olympic Games, however, the mental side has been the piece that has challenged me to the core.
For a long time I achieved success in sport solely through work volume and focus. Once my old strategy of massive volume no longer worked for me I was forced to change, something much easier said than done.
Without oversimplifying it, if you are looking to take your training to the next level the first step is to identify the areas you avoid.
If something makes you uncomfortable or you resist making a change (like eating Paleo), it probably means that’s the area you should hone in on most. It’s not fun, it can make you question yourself as an athlete and person and it won’t change in a day.
However, I truly believe that the more you face your fears and weaknesses head on, the sooner you will realize what incredible things you’re capable of.
Train hard, eat clean, and stay focused! Good luck!
Too much reading...
How about dessert?