My Fitness Journey

I’ve always been active. I was raised on a cattle farm in south-western Pennsylvania, so early on had the blessing of being raised on grass-fed beef, our own chickens, vegetables fresh from the garden, milk and butter from the neighbor’s dairy cow, and even fruit form our own orchard. I was also active during this time with the daily rhythm of farm life: care and feeding of livestock, rolling hay bales, weeding the garden, and in my free time running wild and exploring the woods bordering our property. In school I was on the wrestling team and played little league baseball.

That all ended in my mid-teens. As a result of my parent’s divorce, I ended up in a tiny town with my siblings and mother. I didn’t adapt well, and eventually fell in with the smoking and drinking crowd. I lost interest in sports and remained more or less inactive until my family moved to coastal North Carolina after my senior year of high school. 

Living at the beach was a game-changer for me. I immediately fell in love with beach life – surfing and fishing specifically – and spent a good part of the next 10-15 years obsessing over the ocean (and still do to this day, albeit with a bit less fervor but greater appreciation). I was by no means living a healthy lifestyle – I smoked and drank and in general took very poor care of myself. 

Life moves on, and I eventually met the woman who would become my wife. We moved to the Caribbean, got married, had our son, and moved back to North Carolina. Somewhere in my thirties one of my brothers got the idea that he wanted to run a marathon. He’d read somewhere that Oprah Winfrey ran a marathon and figured if she could do it, why couldn’t he? He enlisted me and my other brother, bought a book on training for a first marathon, and we started running together. I had never run in my life… not even a 5K. But I grew to look forward to our “long runs” on the weekends together, and after about four months of training the three of us ran our first marathon together in New Orleans. I can’t remember my time for that first marathon – it was over four hours – but I do remember the feeling of being completely wrecked, barley able to walk and light headed. I was given a medal and directed to the beer tent (this was New Orleans after all). I felt like I had been hit – no, run over – by a train… and I was absolutely hooked. I went on and eventually ran another five marathons, with quite a few half marathons, 10Ks, 5Ks, trail races, etc. along the way. Running was now my main – really sole – form of exercise. 

About this time my daughter was born. I started to burn out on running. I’d accumulated my share of repetitive stress injuries, and frankly was growing bored of running all the time. The same brother who introduced me to running one day said we should do triathlons. At the time I didn’t even own a bike, so I found a 10 speed at a garage sale and signed up for my first triathlon. I eventually bought a “real” triathlon bike and probably competed in thitry or more triathlons over the next couple of years, including two half Ironman races. As with running, I wasn’t particularly good or fast… I was usually one of the first out of the water after the swim, but I hated biking and sucked at it, and all the slower swimmers would eventually zoom by me on their bikes. Being a mediocre runner put me firmly mid-pack in most races in my age division. 

By now I’d reached forty-something… and I burned out on triathlons. It was the biking that finally did me in, I simply did not enjoy the amount of riding required. I was also insanely busy in my professional life as a technology salesman, and as a result I just stopped swimming/biking/running altogether. My diet during my endurance exercise phase was centered around carbs…without any distinction between healthy vs. unhealthy food. Somewhere in my forties my health bottomed out. I was relatively inactive, still eating a bunch of carbs, and drinking more or less daily. I became the dreaded skinny-fat guy… skinny arms and legs, with a thick layer of fat around my mid-section. Not a great look on me.

I suppose it was somewhere around this time that I made two major lifestyle changes; I went vegan and I joined a gym. I saw the film “Forks Over Knives” and I was aware that there were some endurance athletes who were vegan. I decided to try it for 30 days… and fell down a rabbit hole. I was 100% all-in plant powered. I bought a ton of fresh veggies and was making meals from scratch… and I felt FANTASTIC. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was life changing for me. Somewhere in the first few months I felt more alert, more energetic, and my libido improved. I read vegan manifestos on the horrors of factory farming (something I’d never really considered before), and while I’d started veganism purely for health reasons, I soon bought into the notion that eating animals and animal products was wrong.

Shortly after going vegan, I joined a globo-gym. I had no idea what I was doing. I think my first few months were just wandering in and going from machine to machine. I eventually found, and adopted some of their free workout programs, which at least gave me some semblance of structure. I’d typically follow along with a routine for a month or so, get bored with it, and switch to another. Between my plant-based diet and working out my body composition began to change from skinny-fat, to just plain skinny.

I wanted to gain weight, but only eating plants and hitting the gym a few days a week just wasn’t cutting it. I dug into some research – vegan research at the time – and for the first time was introduced to the importance of protein for building muscle. So I ate more tofu (lots more), more seitan (made from wheat, commonly used to make vegan “meat”), and nuts. During this period I found two resources that were key in moving my fitness journey forward. The first was the Ben Greenfield podcast and website. Ben has a background as a triathlete, and that appealed to me. He also introduced to concepts like optimizing nutrition and performance, as opposed to just “being fit.” The second resource was a book by Mike Matthews titled “Bigger Leaner Stronger.”  This book demystified workout programming and introduced me to the concept of progressive overload.

About this same time I was struggling with my plant based diet. I had a very difficult time putting on muscle, and I began to feel run down and would get extremely tired in the afternoons. I tried adding to my already considerable supplement routine, but nothing was working. I decided it was time to change my diet and began adding meat and dairy back into my meals. Almost immediately I felt better and more vital.  But unlike before I went vegan, I now had an appreciation of food as fuel and medicine, and realized that not all food is created equal.  I had cut out most processed foods and was looking for pasture-raised, grass fed (and finished) meat and dairy.   

Over the next few years I spent time in gyms, had a nice home gym set up for a while, and in general was fairly active and fit. But it wasn’t until my mid-fifties when my teenage daughter talked me into joining a CrossFit gym with her that I really put all the pieces together – strength, conditioning, recovery, and nutrition. For the first time in my life I was consistently getting stronger and fitter. For the first time in my life I had six pack abs. For the first time in my life I was prioritizing recovery and sleep. Over a decade of experimenting with my diet resulted in a calorie and macro balance that were optimized for me. I understood the importance of clean whole foods. I understood how many calories a day I required to maintain, lose, or gain weight. And I finally had a handle on the appropriate balance of fat/carbs/protein my body requires at this time in my life.

Fitness and nutrition are journeys – not destinations. I’m less than two weeks away from my 56th birthday at the time of this writing, and I’m certain that I’ll look back at this in 10 years and have new insights and knowledge. I relish learning about my body and what it’s capable of, and how to best prepare it for peak performance – both in life and in the gym.

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Kevin English

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