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Kevin: Well I’m really excited to have Nell Stephenson on the show today with over 15 years of working in health, fitness, and nutrition. Nell’s practice now spans several countries with nutritional clients around the globe in addition to local clients in Los Angeles where both whom fitness and nutrition sessions are conducted. Her love of fitness and health brought her to Iron Man triathlons. She has qualified for the Hawaii Iron Man World Championships four times which spurs her to keep training harder and inspires her to keep getting faster and leading by example. Since 2005 Nell has followed a paleo eating plan and teaches clients, friends, and family how this manor of eating can so positively impact their lifestyle and quality of living. Her website and blog can be found at nellstephenson.com and she also has a book coming up which we’ll get into.
Nell, welcome to the show.
Nell: Thanks for having me.
Kevin: I didn’t even ask you, how did the Iron Man go? How was your experience?
Nell: It was awesome. It’s always an honor to race there. I never know what to expect. I had a great time. My husband raced as well so it was a family affair. Although it wasn’t my fastest day ever, it was my fastest day on that particular course. I had a great run. It’s just, it’s always just wonderful to race there because that’s where it all started so it’s always a gift to have that opportunity.
Kevin: Oh yeah, no doubt. That was your fourth one?
Kevin: Was that four years in a row?
Nell: No, it was 2006, 2007, I did qualify in 2008, and then I was fortunate to qualify in 2009 and this year as well.
Kevin: Awesome. That’s quite an achievement. I mean even doing a sprint triathlon is quite an achievement I think but going all the way in Iron Man distance I feel, I have so much admiration for people who can do that.
Nell: Well thank you.
Kevin: Yeah. How did you get into triathlons originally?
Nell: I got into triathlon in 1998 and I had always been an active person and I had been working out in Brooklyn, New York and when I moved to LA to go to school at USC I was in the gym doing the stair master and keep in mind this was the early 90s and I was doing that for a month or so and I thought why am I living in Los Angeles and I’m working out inside. This is ridiculous. I started running again and really just after a couple years of going through the motions of running and kind of getting bored, I wanted something, I wanted a different purpose to work out. I found out about sprint triathlons and I thought that sounds like fun, let me give that a try and that’s how I initially got into it.
Kevin: Yeah, I think that’s how a lot of people start. I definitely can understand that. Every few years I switch it up to start looking at new things because doing the same thing over and over can get pretty boring.
Nell: Yeah, you need a new challenge.
Kevin: Exactly. Can you describe your path to the paleo diet from where you were before nutrition wise and then also how you incorporated that into your training?
Nell: Absolutely. I was fortunate to grow up with a hippy mom so I had a pretty healthy diet; healthy according to most American standards that is. We grew up with no sugar added and no preservatives and all that sort of thing. We definitely ate our fair share of whole grains and organic dairy and beans and that kind of thing and so I was eating lots of vegetables and fruit and I also was eating those foods which at the time I though as do many people do those were healthy options and certainly lots of the products we are exposed to as athletes are things that contain dairy, wheat, gluten and things that are not part of the diet.
I had been experiencing some GI issues as a lot of athletes do during racing and aside from that I unfortunately contracted a parasite in a race so long story short I went to the doctor, got some medicine to take care of that and then my stomach just did not feel quite right; back to normal for months. This was probably when I was in my late 20s. I went to a couple of specialists and none of them asked what I was eating. They were just ready to give me different prescriptions for this and that and aid with digestion and I thought this isn’t making any sense and I want to know why and I’m not one to take prescriptions without understanding them. I prefer to take prescriptions as a last resort instead of a first step. So I took it upon myself to do a little research and found that people can have a latent allergy to gluten and it doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in GI stress. It can manifest in acne, joint pain, not being able to sleep properly, lots and lots of different things. I thought what if I just cut gluten out and see how I feel and after a couple of months of feeling awful, I felt better in days.
That was the initial and then I just kind of thought if I could change my diet a little bit and feel this good and keep in mind prior to the parasite incident, I had always been somebody who was really high energy and doing Iron Man and that kind of thing, so it’s not like I was coming from a place of poor health. That’s just a little caveat for those listeners that feel great, you still might feel even better.
Kevin: Yeah, I definitely agree.
Nell: Yeah, so after that I just researched a little bit more and I sort of stumbled across the paleo diet and I thought why don’t I just give it a try and I had nothing to lose so sure enough I start my husband and I, my husband who was my boyfriend then, we started it in 2005 and we leaned out, not that we had a lot of weight to lose, but we definitely leaned out and have better energy and recover phenomenally; we’re rarely injured; we’re really sick. The list goes on and it’s a fabulous diet. While people feel it’s radical, it’s actually not. It’s common sense.
Kevin: Yeah, it goes back to the basics.
Nell: It certainly does.
Kevin: What’s the hardest part of paleo and being an Iron Man triathlete?
Nell: To me, I think it’s not hard anymore because I’m so used to it, but you know the nutrition part of training, even if someone doesn’t follow the paleo diet is so easy to botch because there’s so many products out there and as a beginner triathlete you’re led to think that you need bars, and gels, and drink mixes and this and that and if you eat all that different stuff especially if you are doing shorter distances, you’re probably going to end up with an unexpected trip to the port-o-potty which nobody wants in a race, so I think just keeping it simple is the best approach I can suggest. If anybody’s read the Paleo Diet by Dr. Cordane or the Paleo Diet for Athletes, there’s a great section in the later that talks about training in terms of paleolithic eating and the one thing that’s I have in my diet that’s not part of the paleo diet is carbohydrate gel. I like the Power Bar brand because I like the electrolyte profile. The one caveat is to be aware of the chocolate flavor because that does have milk in it. The other flavors are just, it’s just carbohydrate gel and if you’re talking about endurance training and you’re out there for hours on end I find that to be the simplest thing to do and that’s what I use in Iron Man. I don’t use anything else except gel, water, and salt. It keeps it simple. My stomach feels great when I’m racing and training and it sustains me and it sustains my husband. He has done a couple of 100 mile running races with it and it’s just an easy recipe. It’s an easy thing to do.
Kevin: Yeah. Do you use that when you train too?
Nell: I use it when I’m training and I know some of the people say you must get tired. You must have some protein. You must have this, you must have that. If I’m doing anything other then a long aerobic bike ride, then it will be just the gels, however if it’s a long off season slog of a ride and out there for five or six hours, sometimes I will bring other things. I might bring a baked yam with a little bit of salt on it and depending on where I’m riding you can fashion your ride so you are half way through so your half way stopping point is maybe if you know there’s a little health food shop you can go in and grab a little bit of lean protein there. I certainly wouldn’t suggest you carry sliced turkey with you for six hours because it’s going to go bad.
Kevin: Pockets full of grass fed beef.
Nell: Exactly. I mean you can actually make your own jerky so you know it doesn’t have to high levels of sodium or anything funky added to it. You could bring that because that would be non-perishable, but that’s pretty much what I do. I’m not one for bringing all these different mixes or bars and different kinds of things like that.
Kevin: Definitely. I was talking about this with a personal trainer here yesterday that does the paleo diet and the problem with triathlon and a lot of the endurance sports is a lot of the sponsors are these really high carb companies like Cliff and Power Bar and Gatorade and all that so it sort of lends itself to most people thinking okay I’ve got to eat all these things and drink all these things to get fast.
Nell: Right and it’s really unfortunate because it’s not just true. There are so many products out there, and I think the easiest thing to tell the listeners is to just read the label. If you can’t identify something as being a food, you probably don’t want it in your body. I mean even, paleo eating aside, if you don’t follow the paleo diet and you pick up, there’s this one electrolyte company that makes electrolyte replacement tablet and it’s got a product in it call Sorbitol which is a sugar alcohol and it’s also used as a binding agent so it allows things to be in a tablet form as opposed to a powder and it’s also a low calorie sweetner compared to normal sugar so you’ll see it in chewing gum and mints. The interesting thing about it that a lot of people don’t realize, it’s also indicated for use as a laxative as is its sister product Malatol. So if you see that in a product you’re meant to be using while you’re training and racing, I would kind of give that a red flag.
Kevin: That’s a really good point.
Nell: Yeah and there’s lots of little things like that and you know some people can take it and have no problem at all but you just really, really have to be savvy, even if it’s a company that you love the brand and you think the world of the, you just really have to be careful. It’s a lot of trial and error and really finding out what works for you and don’t try anything new on race day.
Kevin: That’s always a good tip. What kind of snacks do you eat and particularly because you’re an endurance athlete and you’re doing really long races, but also kind of generally because doing the paleo diet is hard to find a good quick snack.
Nell: I think the main thing with doing a paleo diet is you need to plan. You don’t need to have hours of time every day. It’s not like I’m saying you need to have three hours to do a gourmet meal every single night, because most of my clients don’t have that. In fact most people are pressed for time, so it just comes down to making it a priority, organizing, and having the time. What I often recommend people do is two trips to the grocery store spaced out evenly during the week. It might be over the weekend say on a Sunday and it might be on a Wednesday. Go into the store and buy your basics, coming home and cooking them in a very simple manner so you are only cooking for about an hour at a time preparing enough steamed vegetables and grilled chicken and so on so you have enough to last a couple of days and that way everything is ready to go in the refrigerator and all you have to do in the morning is pack your little lunch bag with a thermal tote and bring it to work. I do that every day. My husband brings one to work. That’s the simplest way. It does need to be a priority but it’s not something you need to need 20 hours a week to allocate to.
My snacks, I view very similarly to how I view meals. I think of food as a drug because once it’s in the body it is a drug. It’s a chemical. So I think of it, if you were to supply your body with little bits of this chemical throughout the day, to me this makes sense for maintaining an even level of blood sugar as opposed to having no breakfast, huge snack, tiny lunch, huge snack, medium size snack, big dinner, go to bed. That cycle to me doesn’t make a lot of sense. A lot of people will do that and they’ll end up by the end of the day, they are so full from dinner, they go to bed full, they wake up their still full from last night and they’re not hungry and it’s just this very negative spiral to be in.
So having said that, I keep my meals pretty balanced and I view breakfast and snack and meal and lunch all similarly so I’ll have vegetables at breakfast, I’ll have vegetables in a snack, and just keeping in mind that every meal is sort of similar to one another, this is not considering training meals because that’s a different type of setup and I’ll explain that afterwards, but basically all of my meals that are away from training start with vegetables, any kind of vegetables, and then I’ll add some protein some healthy fat and maybe some fruit. For example, on Monday I had an off day from training so my breakfast was steamed broccoli, sliced apple, some left over grilled salmon from the night before, I drizzled some flax oil on it and then I had some fresh berries with it. That was Monday’s breakfast. That’s how any give meal is. Some type of vegetable, some protein, maybe a little bit of fruit and some fat and it’s just the skies the limit. I really suggest playing around and finding your favorite combinations and not being afraid to think outside the box if you will. Just remember breakfast does not have to be a grain festival.
Kevin: Exactly. You said with training it’s going to be a little different or a lot different?
Nell: I think most people know you’re not going to have a giant steak minutes before you go out for a sprint run workout. Before a workout I will switch to more of a four to one carbohydrate to protein type of a meal and I keep it on the easily digestible side as far as the protein and a higher glycemic choice as far as the carbohydrate. One of the easiest things to do is have a banana and some egg whites. There’s an egg white protein powder that I like that I make into a smoothie with a banana. I’ll either use water or brewed decaf herbal tea, a tablespoon of raw almond butter and I’ll blend that up and I’ll have that maybe half an hour to an hour before a workout. That’s just one example. During a workout depending on how long it is, I’ll have the carbohydrate gels and I think that’s something worth touching on because a lot of people under fuel their training. Even if somebody is not at their ideal weight and they’re trying to lose some excess fat, the time to restrict your calories is not during the workout. Granted if you are doing a half hour easy sprint you don’t need to have a gel, however, if you’re doing a two hour run getting ready for a marathon, you need more then one gel. How much gel you need depends on many factors including how tall you are, how intense the workout is, how much time has elapsed since the last time you ate just to name a few, but the general rule of thumb is four calories of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour. I’m 52 kilos so that turns out to be 208 calories an hour so roughly two gels.
For example, in Iron Man I was having to gel every 25 – 30 minutes. It’s really interesting because my husband and I chat about it a lot with friends who are athletes and they can’t believe how much gel we take in. You really need that much if you are talking about the longer sports. And again it’s just depending. If you are doing a one hour hike you don’t need to have two gels so just keep everything balanced but don’t be afraid, even if your goal is to lose weight, don’t be afraid to eat those gels because the amount of gel you would have to eat to compensate the amount you’re burning through exercise would be huge, so even if you had a two hour run and you had three gels, you’d still have expended more so if your goal is to lose weight you’re still going to be in deficit after that.
Kevin: Yeah. Exactly and it wouldn’t really apply if you were just kind of more sedentary and maybe work out two or three times a week. There’s really no time when you’re going to need the gels.
Nell: Not at all. Exactly. That’s an interesting thing. I see clients, when I’m with clients at the gym sometimes I’ll see people come in and do 40 minutes on the stair master, they’ll grab a power bar, and then they’ll have Gatorade and I think oh my gosh you’re just sabotaging your workout because you must have expended 300 calories and you’re in-taking about 400 calories of processed sugar so that wasn’t really necessary.
Kevin: That’s what we talk about a lot is this whole idea that if you are looking for weight loss the focus really shouldn’t be on the workout, it should be more on the nutrition and then the workout is kind of secondary to that.
Nell: The nutrition is huge. It’s more then 50 percent of the equation. I can’t stress that enough. Whether you are an athlete or sedentary it’s way more then an afterthought. It’s so important.
Kevin: Absolutely. Switching over a little bit to the psychological aspect of all this, do you have any tips on stepping out from the crowd when it comes to eating habits and this is particularly to the triathlete crowd with their universal love of carbs?
Nell: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s worth pointing out to that the paleo diet is not a “low carb diet,” in other words it’s not Atkins, it’s not where you’re not eating carbohydrates, the carbohydrates you are eating are from a very natural complex whole processed unrefined source so that’s something I’m always quick to point out. I don’t not eat carbs, I just don’t eat processed carbs. I eat a ton of carbs because I’m eating vegetables and fruit all the time and my starch of choice that I use to prep for a long session is always yam, baked yam. Yam is a great, great option. Again with sort of without making yourself to uncomfortable, because a lot of people do feel uncomfortable when they’re in a crowd, even though we’re adults, people will report, clients will report feeling peer pressure. You know I just end up having some of the nachos because my buddies were giving me a hard time and that kind of thing and I gave in and then I felt really awful afterwards and that type of thing so I think there’s a couple of things.
One just know that it gets easier as people start to know that you eat this way and you’re not willing to budge they’ll probably stop bugging you about it, and instead of focusing on what you can’t eat, and of course I don’t ever recommend to be preachy about it. If I’m going out with friends they’ll joke hide the bread, Nell’s coming. Eat whatever you want. I’m not the type of person that goes to people and gives unsolicited advice and says oh I can’t believe you’re eating that bread. What somebody eats is a very personal choice and if I’m out with a friend and she’s eating bread I don’t mind it. I don’t have an issue with it. I think keep to yourself and focus on all the things you are eating and then the cool thing about it is the more you do it and the truer you stay to the paleo diet, when your friends see that you’ve lost a ton of weight or that your skin clears up or that that you are having these amazing race PRs, whatever the case may be, they’re going to sort of put two and two together and think oh my God, whatever you’re doing it’s really working. I might want to try that.
I think just focusing on the positive and just, you know really, if someone is bugging you that much, come on have the nachos, have the pizza, you know it’s like come on we’re adults here. I don’t want the pizza. Thank you. I think where it gets a little bit trickier is if you get a gift. One of my clients posted something interesting to the blog yesterday which he said his mom, I think he said something like in quotes his mom shows him love in carbohydrates. She gets that he doesn’t eat wheat but she forever buying him gluten free cookies and gluten free bread and gluten free that and he’s like I don’t want any grains but it’s hard to get that. It’s hard to convince people.
All I can say is politely decline. Become comfortable with the fact that when you are eating in a restaurant, and I eat out two or three times a week, it certainly is not the type of diet which forces you to be house bound. My husband and I are out all the time and it’s just being polite telling the server hey you know what and I’m sorry. I joke and I say I’m not picky customer for sure but I would like my salad without the croutons and would you please leave the dressing on the side and no chees. I’m nice about it and nine times out of ten they are cool with it and I leave them a bigger gratuity because they were so accommodating.
Hopefully all that stuff helps. The more you do it and the less you give in, the more truer you stay to it, the easier it will become to the point where people will, I mean nobody at this point you know, everybody knows I eat this way so nobody is going to be offering me spaghetti.
Kevin: Exactly. You have a really good story as far as completing all these Iron Mans and I think we need more people like you out there kind of leading by example and that’s going to kind of convince people more then anything. The guy I was talking to yesterday was saying we need someone to win the Iron Man and when he gets asked, or he or she gets asked how they did it, to say oh it was all about my diet.
Nell: Yes. Oh that would be awesome.
Kevin: Even you’ve had so much success with training and finishing these races and doing really well that I think that’s proof. There are just not the masses of people that are doing it yet. That’s the only thing.
Nell: That’s totally the case. I mean I blog about it all the time. I had my best race so far this year at Iron Man Hawaii 70.3 at Kona. I had my first amateur win which was amazing. I got so emotional about it because it’s just something I worked for. I’m not you know some genetic, special gifted. It’s just years of hard work and having a great coach and a great husband and eating properly. You know coming across the line and seeing have some bagels, have some pretzels, have some, one marathon I finished had milk at the finish line. I was like really?
Kevin: The last one I went to had, what was it, cookies. Some sort of packaged cookies. That was the only thing they had out to eat, that and bananas.
Nell: Yeah, again, even if someone doesn’t follow the paleo diet, you just ran a really hard marathon, you really want a dried out cookie?
Kevin: I have to ask, how was the swim in your last race and how is your swim going overall?
Nell: You know, my swim is not my forte. If anybody looks at my time, it’s funny my husband Chris is the same way, we have the same mo every single race. We get out completely in the middle in the swim and then we advance a lot on the bike and advance even more on the run. I don’t know what to say. I think I definitely got out of the habit of swimming in masters. We lived in Seattle for a couple of years, until last year for his work and we just didn’t find a masters group that fit with our schedule so I like swimming I just don’t love it as much as I do the other two sports. Probably I should chat with you about that.
Kevin: I could send you to a couple of blog posts I’ve written on that.
Nell: On the swimming front too, I don’t know if anybody, whenever somebody gets out there next year either for the half or the world championships, there’s a great lady out there whose name is Carlene Pikes Neilsen and she is awesome. She does open water as well as endless pool sessions at her home and she’s awesome so I definitely give her a little bit of a shout out there if anybody needs it. A little last minute tune up before the race next year.
Kevin: It might be worth the trip to Hawaii to do that.
Nell: She’s awesome. She actually travels around the world doing clinics and she’s got a really interesting approach which is different from other approaches somebody might have seen so it’s helpful.
Kevin: Now what has your triathlon career taught you about life in general?
Nell: Oh gosh. I don’t even know where to begin. I think if I had to say the most important thing is that just we as humans can do so much more then we think we can. Our minds are what stops us from doing things. That’s partly the reason I got into doing full Iron Man rather than sticking with sprints. I had done a couple of sprints and I think a couple of the Olympic distances and I went with a friend who was racing at the time Iron Man California was a full distance. So I went to see her and I was very inspired by the fact that she did it and so impressed but still I thought I can’t do that. There’s no way I can do that. Then when I saw the challenge athletes come across the line, and I think that year there was an elderly man racing who was 84 coming across the line and I mean you see someone come across the line in a wheelchair or they don’t have an arm or they’re blind and they’ve got this amazing spirit and they can do it and they’ve decided that nothing is going to stop them, that to me made me think, okay what is my deal? I was in my mid-twenties at the time and I thought I’m young and I have a healthy body that works, why do I think I can’t do this? This is ridiculous. I have a gift; a gift in the sense of a body that works. Let me try this. I always clarify and I say it’s not to say everybody has to be doing Iron Man, it’s just think about the fact that you have a body and it works and we are meant to move so move. It doesn’t matter if you do triathlon or tennis or hoola hoop. I mean just do something. I think what it’s taught me is we can do whatever we want. Really the sky is the limit. If you just decide you can’t do something, then you definitely can’t, but if you decide why not, let me try, you have nothing to lose. I think that is something that can carry over to career and to relationships, into anything. It’s just this open limit, skies the limit mentality and just try. Give everything a try.
Kevin: Awesome lesson. Now what about your book? What’s the title and when is that coming out?
Nell: It’s the Official Paleo Diet Cookbook which I co-authored with Dr. Lauren Cordane, again who wrote the paleo diet and his wife Laurie Cordane. We collaborated on the recipes. That’s going to come out, I believe the release date is scheduled for December 13th and it’s already on Amazon for pre-order. It’s really, really exciting.
Kevin: Nice. I’ll definitely have to pick that up. I’m looking for recipes all the time now.
Nell: One of my most fun things to do aside from triathlon is I love entertaining and cooking. I attended culinary school after I graduated from USC and I love cooking. One of the most fun things that I like doing is taking recipes and converting them into paleo and it’s really easy to do. Some are more straightforward then others. For example if a recipe says sauté onions in butter well easily you can substitute the olive oil for the butter but other things are trickier like what do you use for a thickner and it’s challenging. It’s an interesting way to sort of keep me up to speed on my kitchen skills.
Kevin: What are your future plans with triathlon and your business and you know you got the book coming out?
Nell: Well for triathlon, for next year I would definitely like to qualify again. I would like to make the podium at Iron Man championships. I was hoping to do that this year. Last year I missed it by seven minutes. I was seventh place. Then this year I was actually faster by seven minutes but I was 14th in my age group so I missed it by a long shot. I would like to get the podium next year. Definitely want to break three hours in marathoning this year hopefully at the Sacramento Marathon and then for sure next year at LA Marathon I would like to have yet another PR.
My business has grown really nicely. I’ve got quite a few online plans that are downloads that are available for purchase internationally as well as custom nutritional counseling that I do for you specifically based on your training, your family, your travel and so on. I’ve got a couple of lectures lined up where I will be speaking to a couple of different groups. One is a group of new runners who are doing the LA Marathon and then I’ve got a couple of products that I’m working on that are still in the conceptual phase but I’m hoping to launch those not to long. I’ve got a little bits here and there going on for different things in the business and it’s really fun because I’m not the type of person who can sit down and work through one thing for 8 or 10 hours so I like having a whole bunch of things going on.
Kevin: And you have your blog which is daily that I really like because there are so many blogs out there that get a little bit to detailed and yours just get right to the point and sometimes it’s just like one tip for the day.
Nell: Thank you. I owe that to my husband. He’s the one that encouraged me a couple of years ago to just start blogging and I thought, I think a lot of bloggers initially think well who’s gonna read what I have to say and who cares that you can have an apple as a snack with some almonds and that type of thing, but like you said the point is it doesn’t have to be a ten page piece. It’s actually probably better if it’s not. Just a brief to the point thing whether it’s a nutrition tip or a fitness tip or a paleo tip, I’m glad you appreciate it because that’s definitely the goal.
Kevin: I know how hard it is to do every day even if it’s just a couple of sentences. Sometimes it can be tough to get that writing done.
Nell: I think just having a plan. Some people will comment to the blog and I’ll use their comment as an idea for the next blog and that kind of thing so it kind of spurs itself.
Kevin: Exactly. Well I think that about wraps it up. Nell thanks so much for coming on the show. That was awesome and I’m really excited to hear that.
Nell: Thank you so much. I enjoyed speaking with you.
Kevin: It’s Nellstephenson.com. I’ll put that in the show notes. That’s where you can get to her site and blog. Is your book up there or do they have to go to Amazon for that?
Nell: It’s not on my site yet. I’ll have a link posted shortly thereafter and if somebody wants to go directly to the link to look at my plans its shop.nellstephenson.com.
Kevin: Awesome. Well thanks again for coming on and have a great week.
Nell: Thanks Kevin. Likewise.