When you suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the last thing you want to do is swim, bike, and run to a triathlon finish line. But that’s exactly how Amanda Arbuthnot got SAD under control.
Like the 2 to 3 percent of Canadians who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), I spent the winter hiding from the cold, missing out on important things like sunshine and friendship. After years of struggling, last fall I finally sought treatment for depression and assumed I’d now be immune to SAD.
A new challenge
But with the turning back of the clocks in the fall, my progress unravelled. I turned to a therapist for better ways to cope. I hoped treatment would be as simple as childhood trauma-purging hypnosis, or an uptake in drugs, but she had other things in mind. Her unwelcome suggestion was that I exercise.
I quit gym altogether in junior high, when I could excuse myself by claiming a “never-ending” menstrual period. I explained to my therapist that gentle yoga in dark rooms was all the physical activity I needed. She responded that I would have to find a way into the light, or at least into a well-lit room, since a popular and effective treatment for SAD is light exposure.
Upon some reflection I chose triathlon training. Having never participated in group sports, the idea of joining a team intimidated me, but I was drawn to the community of support I would have access to while training for a triathlon. Although it seemed extreme, I knew I would respond best to something aspirational and out of my comfort zone, and so the training began.
A triathlete is born!
To my great surprise, I loved it! Triathlon training was like rehab for my brain and body while I recovered from depression and SAD. At 28, I was soon in the best shape of my life, mentally and physically.
The race I chose was a non-standard length with a 1 km swim, 26 km bike ride, and 8 km run. As with all problems, I found the best approach was to break it down and take each section as an individual challenge. In the months leading up to the race I trained four times a week, one day for each activity and one for weights or yoga. As the final day approached, I followed a more rigorous schedule.
In the hopes of encouraging others in their training, the following are my guidelines for triathlon newbies. A bonus for me was how each component of training helped me overcome SAD.
Beyond the physical experience
Triathlons vary in length, from the beginner’s sprint to the expert’s Ironman, but they all include a swim, bike ride, and run. I tried to find something special to focus on in each component.
I was warned that swimming would be the hardest, but while swimming laps my mind fell into the quiet grace I knew from yoga. As an added bonus, I found that many pools are built with glass-panelled ceilings, which allow sunlight to beam down its healing rays.
My main struggle was with the Sisyphean task of riding a stationary bike. I trained through the winter in Edmonton, where icy roads eliminated the possibility of enjoying the beautiful city paths, and I was forced into a sweaty gym.
For this portion of training I enlisted a friend to join me for weekly spin classes. SAD can lead to social isolation, and exercising with a friend is a great way to spend time with loved ones. Joining a triathlon group allows you to bond with new friends over the common goal of surviving one last hill before a water break.
Alternately, when I wanted to overcome my irritated moods, I would run to stomp out my frustrations. After finishing a fierce 5 km, I had exorcised unwanted thought patterns, and I felt stronger in body and mind.
Shoes don’t make the woman
When I started training, one thing seemed obvious: success was all about the swag. I would need a lot of shiny new gear. What eventually become clear was that I already had all the gear I needed in my closet. SAD can lead to low energy levels, and therefore low motivation, so it was important for me to make my approach to fitness simple and accessible.
After months of hesitating over what to buy, I realized I had already trained the full distance wearing old yoga gear, no neon shoes or new spandex required. As for swimming, save your eyes and hair with properly fitted cap and goggles and you’re good to go.
For the bike, a lightweight option may have been ideal, but it wasn’t necessary. This was showcased when a senior riding a single gear cruiser breezily passed me on race day.
Have your carbs and eat them too
Give in to your wintertime carb cravings, and fuel and recover with healthy natural carbohydrates. Simple options like honey on toast, or yogurt with fruit are perfect before a workout for fuelling performance.
For recovery snacks after a workout, I reach for more fruit. A handful of antioxidant-rich berries or a banana helps replenish and nourish me in preparation for round two. As with any workout, the key is to not over-replenish; a short swim doesn’t burn calories equivalent to an energy bar, though we may wish it did.
It is often assumed that protein is the most essential component of an athlete’s diet; however, most people naturally consume sufficient protein to recover from exercise. More often neglected is the value of rehydrating. Especially when swimming, you may forget that being in a body of water still means you need water in your body.
Just get going
The best part of training for a triathlon is that you can begin right now. Dive in, lace up, and as Freddie Mercury sang, get on your bike and ride! You may not be the head of the pack—like me, you may be at the very end—but with persistence you will finish.
If you have a loving partner like I do, this arrival will be greeted with the pop of a champagne cork. Though few training sessions finish so grandly, each will deliver a small, wonderful satisfaction.