Girl Meets Water

Five meals a day?

In Girl Meets Water

Abigail Kovar

By Abigail Kovar
July 3, 2017 at 11:51 a.m.

    One thing most people don’t know about rowers is how much they eat. I’ll give you a hint—it’s a lot.

    I didn’t realize how much I had started to eat until I came home from college for Thanksgiving. I was excited to see extended family and share the day with them, and after baking and cooking all morning I was also ready to devour some food. When we sat down, I loaded my plate up as any true American would on the day of thanks (and let’s be honest, feasting). Turkey, stuffing, vegetables, bread, potatoes, macaroni and cheese—all the carbohydrate essentials. But after I finished my plate, I wasn’t full. Feeling no shame, I ate another full plate and a half.

    I hadn’t even noticed my dad staring at me out of the corner of his eye. He jokingly commented that he was impressed with my performance. Without batting an eye, I had eaten more than my six-foot five, 210-pound older brother. The whole family was floored. I’ve always been a good eater and have never shied away from a feast, but this was a new level. Even for me.

    It wasn’t until I had reintegrated into the non-rowing world that I realized most people don't have to eat an extra 1,000 to 1,500 calories a day to not pass out. Workouts burn 900 calories a day at least and the extra muscle formed because of training sculpts a sky-high metabolism. When people see me eat without knowing that I row they are usually quite confused.  “This girl is going to gain the freshman FIFTY!” I can hear them thinking. "She must have an eating disorder," they say in their heads.

    It’s difficult to have to constantly explain a part of your daily life to everyone around you, especially when you feel like they're judging you despite the explanation. It’s annoying to have to worry about consuming enough calories when most people are trying to cut them out. And I know most people would say that’s a good problem to have, and yes, it is, but it comes with hardship just like everything else. Most people don't understand what my body needs. I don't blame them for not understanding, I didn't either, but constant questions about what I'm putting in my body sometimes make me feel like a freak of nature. Body image difficulties are not foreign to anyone, athletes included.

    My body changed when I started rowing. After the first month I felt leaner, more fit. Then I went from lean to skinny, from skinny to weak. The skinniness felt good at first, but the lack of strength didn't. Soon my clothes were too loose, sagging in places they had fit perfectly before. I would eat, but not until I was full. I would limit myself to the amount I food I thought I needed, without listening to what my body craved. Then workouts became harder. I became more tired and my erg scores were not progressing like I hoped they would. Not knowing the energy I was expending, it didn’t occur to me I needed to up my calorie intake.

    After an especially grueling practice I felt like I had bottomed-out. We had done a test piece, where coaches record your times and scores to use in ranked boatings, and it had gone miserably. Amidst the yelling and crying and cramping I felt like I had only found failure. My body had given all it could, but any effort was like pulling out a deeply-embedded splinter. It was painful, painstaking and devoid of passion. I was tired and disappointed. After splurging on chicken breast, Greek yogurt, and peanut butter, I fell into a deep sleep, hoping the rest would replenish my body for the following day.

    The next day’s workout went better. And the next day's. After several days like this, I realized it wasn't just luck, I was actually improving. It didn't happen magically, but for some reason I was able to work harder. What had changed? I ate more. I incorporated more carbohydrates and filling vegetables into my diet. Soon enough I wasn’t as tired in the daytime, my muscles stopped aching constantly and my clothes started to fit again. I was no longer operating off of a calorie deficit. Giving my body the protein and healthy fats it craved helped me to perform.

    The Thanksgiving feasting I partake in was me playing catch-up. While processed carbs might not be the best way to fill a nutritional void, I was finally starting to listen to my body. My teammates and I started to bond over our nightly meals together. We would eat and talk and cry and laugh, all commiserating in the torture of and our love for the sport. These daily recaps brought us closer than boatmates, we were friends. We talked about eating a whole jar of peanut butter and what felt like a whole salmon farm, assuring each other it was okay because we needed the energy. We helped each other discover what we need to eat to perform and be healthy. Recently, we started a social media account solely dedicated to our eating habits. It captures our love of cooking and our acceptance of the fact that we’re slightly more obsessed with food than the average Joe (Follow us on Instagram, @indeoven. Be warned: it will make your mouth water!).

    When I finally took the time to get to know my body, I began to understand how nutrition can help me perform. I learned that bananas are my best friend before a workout while anything carbonated is not. I realized I can eat two dozen shrimp and feel energized but more than a small amount of red meat will do the exact opposite. I was able to build a mental menu of the delicious things I could eat and in what amounts. By getting to know my body’s needs, I began to respect and love it more.

    Even though my jeans will never fit perfectly because my leg size is much bigger than my waist, I’m okay with that. Sleeved shirts are always a struggle because my shoulders and arms require a larger size than my torso does, but they’re more comfortable big anyway. I grew to love my body for what it enables me to do, not for how it looks in comparison to others'.

    Take the time to get to know your body, to understand what makes you feel strong and energized and beautiful. Maybe it's drinking nine glasses of water a day, maybe it's going gluten-free. Be proud of what your body gives you and reward it by putting in the fuel it requires. Even if that means eating two and a half plates of food at Thanksgiving.

Above is my rowing friends and I, featuring our coach, taking a stellar photo at one of our regattas. Together we share an Instagram account (@indeoven) and boatloads of memories!



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