Nelly Farra knew she had to do something about her weight.
Since grade school, she had played tennis, volleyball, softball and soccer and did yoga, but still had weight issues. A rapid heartbeat also affected her ability to work out.
Then, after a chance meeting with a triathlon coach, she decided to train for a triathlon, an athletic contest of swimming, cycling and running. She competed in her first triathlon in September 2013, and has since taken part in four others.
Her training has paid off: She has lost more than 100 pounds in a year.
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“I am a person who likes competition, so the triathlon training really fits well for me,” said the business development professional at the Miami-based accounting firm of Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra.
Farra, 36, got into triathalons through Tiffany Gust, a certified triathlon coach and owner of TG Triathlon and Fitness Coaching in St. George, Utah. Farra met Gust while on vacation in Utah in February 2013. Gust, who trains competitors across the globe, sends her structured training plans by email, and they talk every week about Farra’s training and weight-loss strategy.
Both share similar health challenges. Farra discovered she had supraventricular tachycardia, or a rapid heartbeat, after a sixth-grade tennis tournament. She began seeing black dots, and her face became pale. Doctors gave her medication to treat the condition, but her sports-playing days were curtailed, and her weight inched back up.
Gust, 46, discovered she had a hole in her heart and a blood clot disorder after having three strokes in 2010. She underwent surgery to have a cardiac septal occluder — a device to close the opening in the wall between the two upper chambers of the heart — implanted to cover the hole and allow tissue to grow. Two years later, Gust completed an Ironman triathlon, the most grueling of the triathlons, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run (a full marathon). She has since completed eight Ironman races.
“Nelly was always told that she couldn’t exercise and be physically fit because of her heart,” Gust said. “The biggest turning point for her was when she saw if you focus on what you can do and not your health obstacles, you can accomplish your goals.”
Gust created a weekly exercise plan for Farra, based on her current fitness level, goals and abilities. Farra initially began using the elliptical machine and swam, which allowed her to work out without putting a lot pressure on her joints. After two months, Farra began jogging. She started by jogging for 30 seconds, gradually building up over time. She also did interval training, where she would run for two minutes and then recover for two more.
“Interval training increases one’s fitness level, and is a great way to trick your body out of plateaus if they’ve been reached during weight loss,” Gust said.
Gust also incorporated resistance training with small weights so Farra could build her muscle mass and strengthen her core. Gust videotaped her runs so she could make sure Farra used the proper form to prevent injury.
“I loved it,” Farra said. “It was not only to lose weight but to accomplish an additional goal. As the weight started coming off, I started getting stronger and stronger.
“When I finished the first practice race in June, it was so amazing,” Farra said. “I felt like I was back to being the competitive tennis player I was in sixth grade.”
Farra is vice chair of the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s WellBeingWell conference, to be held Nov. 6. The conference focuses on practicing a healthy lifestyle and learning more about cancer.
Today, Farra works out six days a week, which includes a 60-minute daily workout and a two-hour Saturday workout. On Saturday, she will usually do two of the three: a 10- to 12-mile bike ride, a half-mile swim or a four-mile run.
A triathlon novice should be medically cleared by a physician before beginning to train, said Dr. Michael Swartzon, who specializes in primary-care sports medicine at Baptist Health Medical Group and the Doctors Hospital Center for Orthopedic and Sports Medicine.
Swartzon also recommends developing a structured training program by joining a triathlon club or hiring a coach certified by USA Triathlon, the official governing body of triathlons in the United States.
“It is not as simple as saying, ‘I’ve run before, rode a bike as a kid and know how to swim, therefore I can perform a triathlon,’” Swartzon said. “It is a very grueling competition that requires a very specific training.”
Learning how to swim in open water with crowds as well as riding bikes in packs are some of the pitfalls novices can avoid if they train with a coach or training club, Swartzon said.
Rest is also important, said Swartzon, who recommends at least one day a week of complete rest. Also, he said, do not try to do more than 10 percent of any exercise you’ve done recently.
“If you ran one mile, don’t go out the next day and run two because one mile was easy,” Swartzon said. “A slow, gradual progression in a structured program is the safest way to train, especially for a novice who doesn’t have the experience of what their body is capable of doing.”
Listening to your body helps prevent injury, Swartzon said. When athletes notice they are more fatigued and depressed, and their performance has dropped off, those are key signs of over-training. If that happens, Swartzon recommends reducing training intensity and taking a few days off.
“It is not that your body can’t do it,” Swartzon said. “It is that your body is tired and needs to scale back.”
Also be aware of delayed-onset muscle soreness, which can be a sign that the muscle has broken down and needs rest. Swelling in the feet or hands along with the soreness indicates your kidneys need to clear out the muscle damage. Too much damage can cause kidney failure.
If a person experiences intense muscle soreness, swelling in the hands or feet or notices that urine is turning red or brown, he or she needs to seek medical attention immediately to prevent permanent kidney damage.
Diet is also important when training for the triathlon, Swartzon said. A serious triathlete can eat 5,000 to 7,000 calories a day, compared with 2,000 calories for an average person.
“If you are training for a triathlon, you have to eat thousands of calories,” Swartzon said. “You are really taking a lot out of the body, and in order to replenish you need to put the right fuel back in.”
A proper diet would include lean meats such as fish and chicken, vegetables and carbohydrates such as whole grains, wheat bread and brown rice, Swartzon said.
Gust worked with Farra to construct a similar diet of healthy carbohydrates, protein and vegetables. A favorite meal for Gust is a lean chicken breast on a bed of leafy greens with balsamic vinegar. A healthy carb would be brown rice, hummus or an avocado. For snacks during the day to level off blood sugar, Gust suggests a hard-boiled egg or an apple.
“I believe in eating food high in nutritional value but low in calories,” Gust said.
Gust suggests planning meals in advance. On the weekends, Farra roasts vegetables and cooks enough chicken breasts for three meals for the week ahead.
“Having food ready to go helps you make the best decisions possible,” Farra said. “You can still go out to eat; it is just making the right choices such as a grilled piece of fish instead of breaded.”
Gust does not recommend restricting any foods along your weight loss journey.
“Restriction breeds rebellion,” Gust said. “So if you restrict your clients, it is going to at some point make them want to have that food.”
“You are supposed to enjoy what you eat,” said Farra, who will have a 100-calorie piece of dark chocolate or a cookie when she wants. “But it is knowing when to have it and allotting for those calories appropriately. I will have a cookie today but not tomorrow. It is about having balance.”
As for the future? She wants to compete in the Olympic triathlon course, then train for a half Ironman triathlon.
If you go
What: University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s WellBeingWell conference
When: 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Nov. 6
Where: JW Marriott Marquis Miami, 255 Biscayne Boulevard Way
Cost: $125 per person
For additional information: Contact Katie Repici at 305-243-9088 or firstname.lastname@example.org.