Parys Edwards – for the love of fitness
A former top level hockey player, Parys Edwards’ love for fitness has seen her progress from team sports to ultra triathlon. Her journey has brought success, but also injury; including a complete re-work of her diet. Hear more on this episode of 32Gi Sports Nutrition.
Thanks for joining us once again on the 32Gi Sports Nutrition podcast I’m Mr Active, David Katz and every week, week in and week out talking about stuff that I’m so passionate about. Nutrition is so important, not just for exercise but with everyday life. Today we’ve got a guest coming on to the show, and it’s a great pleasure to welcome Parys Edwards. Age group triathlete, ultra triathlete should I say and has done a lot more than that. But first of all Parys, welcome to the show.
Parys Edwards: Thanks for having me.
DK: I must ask you, I know you get this a lot but any South African listeners would read your name and goes is it Paris or Parys, Paris by the Vaal as they call it. I’m sure you’ve got a lot of that in your life?
PE: I certainly have, yes, and my dad spoke no Afrikaans whatsoever, thought it would be unique to spell my name P-A-R-Y-S. I’ve lived with the consequences ever since!
DK: Let’s get to some more serious stuff. You’re originally from Zim, you spend a lot of time in South Africa, you’re actually back here training at the moment and recovering from injuries. But you’re also based and at the moment competing out of the UK. Initially you were a hockey player, is that correct?
PE: Yes, absolutely, that was my first love in terms of sport and pretty much took up the first 30 years of my life if I’m honest.
Transition from hockey player to triathlete
DK: Talk to me about that transition. It’s not uncommon, we see people do it all the time but hockey, it’s a quick burst sport. It’s a very different sort of endurance that you need for hockey as opposed to becoming a triathlete and an ultra triathlete. When did you realise you had a bigger endurance engine?
PE: You know, one of my strengths in hockey was my fitness and my work ethic. I was always the one that was excited about fitness training or beep tests and things like that. So I knew even as a hockey player that I liked that side of sport. It just consumed me while I was trying to achieve what I wanted to.
It wasn’t until I thought right, I need a break from hockey and I stepped away and literally just fell into triathlon. Just as a means of keeping fit and meeting some friends in London and it just grew from there. I didn’t really know, I had no idea what I was capable of before I got involved in triathlon, if I’m honest.
DK: Did you find that adaptation quite easy? Swimming would have been something foreign to playing hockey but probably something you did in your life. What was the hardest of the disciplines to get into and was it an easy progression for you?
PE: The progression, it was easy because one of the things that I struggled with hockey was the subjectivity of it. In triathlon if you’ve got the quickest time you’ve won the race. In hockey it often wasn’t that easy to say: Did you have a good game or didn’t you? How much pitch time you got depended on someone giving you that pitch time, choosing you, your coach selecting you.
There was such a dynamic as well with the team, which I loved but I also found it hard. If you made a mistake you let the team down and in triathlon you’re just responsible for you really. So I found it a much easier, it was more of a niche for me. Skill sports the harder you try sometimes the worse you play.
Getting away with a weaker swim
Triathlon, once the race starts you can just put your head down and work hard and that suited me too. I think the hardest thing to get the hang of was swimming. I didn’t swim a lot as a kid so that was really tough, learning to swim properly at the age of 30. It’s been a labour of love since.
DK: Well South African triathlete Richard Murray, he’s worked really hard on his swim but still is his hindrance and one could see him winning a lot more races if he really could get out with that lead pack on the swim. So it’s very important, but we’re looking at ultra triathlon, maybe not as important? You’ve got the time to come back on the bike and on the run?
PE: Yes, absolutely and that’s why I target the distances I do. I needs to be half Ironman and longer and by far the shortest aspect is the swim and you can minimise your losses and that suits me. The fact that it’s non-drafting as well. Olympic distance, I think if you’re not a strong swimmer you really are ruled out of any success there. Because you need to save your legs on the bike and then be fresh for the run. In the longer distances yeah, there’s a little bit more leeway for the weaker swimmers I think.
DK: Parys joining us of course on Skype. Parys I must ask you now, so it was 2007 where you made that transition into triathlon. You’ve had a professional license should I say since 2014. What have been some of your triathlon highlights since taking up the sport?
PE: Oh, well since first taking up the sport I think the best really was when I won the World Champs at the half Ironman distance in Vegas. I had no, I was thinking Top Five would be a dream and so to win my age group and be the second age grouper, that will stay with me for a long time.
That was the first time I thought wow, I’m not bad at this. Then since then obviously, my first professional win at the Laguna Phuket Triathlon, that was very special. It’s a beautiful race, they call it ‘The Race of Legends’ and wonderful atmosphere in Phuket and Thailand. I didn’t think I’d get to win a race as a pro, so that was very special.
Turning injury into an opportunity
DK: Age grouper at Ironman, half Ironman and Challenge events, I still think they’re a lot harder and more competitive than the open events, it really is difficult. Age groupers push really hard, so some fantastic achievements there. Looking more recently though, it’s been a bit of a low in your career, I know you’ve been plagued by injury recently, partly fuelled your coming out to South Africa. Tell us a little bit more about your road to recovery.
PE: Yes, unfortunately I think one of the legacies of hockey was quite a few injuries that I carried with me. I had ankle surgery in 2010 which as an age grouper took me out for about a year. Then unfortunately just when I was starting to find some really good form in 2015 I tore my hamstring tendon, spent quite a bit of time rehabbing it and trying to treat it conservatively.
I managed to do one or two races and then it just failed again, so I had surgery to repair it in December 2015. That was a tough road but I used that time to reset some things, go back to the basics with my core strength and really work on my run technique and actually since that surgery my running has been the best it’s been. My time has been getting quicker and my form is better so I’m a big believer that you can use all your injuries and setbacks to grow you but you have to approach them with the right attitude and they’re certainly not fun at the time.
DK: Parys as a physio, as someone who has studied in that genre, do you find you’re more frustrated with injuries because you kind of understand them? You understand what you need to do and it’s not such an easy process to come back from a lot of injuries?
PE: Yeah, I’ve wondered about this. I think it helps me being a physio. There’s a lot of stuff I self-manage and I know when I have to commit to the training and the disciplines. The things you don’t like doing, the stretching and your core work.
So I think it’s been really positive for me and the one thing I never expected when I stepped back from full-time work as a physio, just to race professionally, I never expected it to impact my physio work so much. Because I’ve learnt just as much from triathlon for physio as I have about my physio and triathlon. So it feeds both ways and I feel very grateful to tie my two favourite things together like that.
How calorie needs dictate nutrition
DK: Let’s move over to some nutrition, obviously that’s also important whenever you’re training or out of season and in season as a triathlete. But specifically looking at coming back from injury, have you needed to eat in a certain way? Have you adapted the way you’ve eaten over the last few months?
PE: Obviously depending on injury, my nutrition varies according to my calorie needs. But I’ve actually, I’ve massively changed my diet and my approach to nutrition since going pro and even before. Because I’ve had quite a few issues with my gut.
I found out about eight years ago I was gluten intolerant, I’m a non-celiac gluten intolerant. Cutting out gluten was what prompted me to make a massive step-up as an age grouper. I just remember my achievements, I just jumped up in ability and it was really insightful.
Then in my first year as a pro I was struggling with some gut issues again. I remember saying to my sister: It feels like I’m eating gluten but I’m not, something else is happening here. I saw a sports nutritionist at the time and found out that I had Leaky Gut Syndrome.
So this inflammation in the gut, you start reacting to foods and then your immune system goes into overdrive and you get all sorts of allergies and gut symptoms. I cut out the foods that I was reacting to and changed my diet again and again a huge step-up in performance.
My body fat dropped, I felt healthy, I wasn’t getting sick, I had so much energy and it was just fantastic. I learnt early on that the role that nutrition plays and what it can do, especially in endurance sports because that’s obviously, it gets more and more important the longer you have to go for.
What adding protein can do to your performance
DK: Parys it’s a problem a lot of people do have and as you said, it’s trial and error. Finding out what’s causing it and what works. Talking about what works, currently where you’re at in terms of racing, what are some of your nutritional practices?
PE: In terms of racing, I’m off gluten and dairy, the main allergens, the main things that can aggravate your gut. Gluten, dairy, sugary and alcohol. So pretty much those four I’m off. Just to try and look after my gut. The other thing that really improved my training and performance was to increase my protein intake, especially at breakfast.
I kept a food diary and then I realised I wasn’t getting protein until the evening sometimes and it can be easily done, especially before I cut out gluten. I always make sure I have some protein in my breakfast and like a race day I make a protein smoothie for breakfast. It’s got protein powder in and then I put in rice milk and coconut milk and an avo and then a banana.
Whatever other fruit I want, maybe half a mango or something, it’s really tasty and I have a black coffee with that. That literally will keep me going through a half Ironman distance on much less nutrition than I would have before when I just ate a bowl of oats porridge with rice milk. I found balancing protein with the carbs really helpful for me.
DK: I like that you mentioned you keep a food diary because whether you’re a professional or an amateur, I know Mark Wolff always talks about it. You don’t really know what you’re consuming until you are keeping that journal. So it’s great advice for anyone out there to look at their diet by doing that. Parys, very interesting to hear how you do eat around races but I know that you are, of course, a 32Gi ambassador and an athlete. How do you utilise the 32Gi products around a race?
How Parys handles her 32Gi race fuelling
PE: They’ve been a huge help. In the race I tend to take three, well over the half Ironman distance I have at least three gels, on the bike. I’m just such a fan of the flavours, the 32Gi flavours. I remember being in races and forcing gels down. Now I have to kind of hold myself back and pace my gels out during the ride.
I’m a particular fan of the vanilla one and coffee and the G-Shot, the Espresso-Shot. Like most triathletes I’m a real caffeine addict and a good coffee is one of my favourite things. It’s literally like having a little espresso on the bike and really, it just peps me. I tend to take that mid-way or towards the end of the bike and maybe one on the run if I need it.
During the race I’m completely 32Gi fuelled and either Endure or the race carbohydrate drinks along with water or an electrolyte if I’m somewhere hot, those do the job. Post-race, the recovery protein powder, it’s one of the few protein powders that I can just mix with water and find it’s still tasty. Usually I have to mix them with coconut milk or something else.
But the recovery, there’s a strawberry and chocolate flavour, or vanilla, all of them, straight into a water bottle with water and it’s perfectly good tasting, it’s just so useful. A little sachet wherever I am, I make sure I’ve got my recovery in post-race as well.
DK: Let’s move on now, you’re on your way back from recovery, you want to get back to that top level, what’s on the cards for you? Even long-term, what are you hoping to achieve from the sport?
PE: A little bit of a back-step, the start of this year, I’m still working out some gut issues, unfortunately, due to a horrible parasite I picked up last summer. So I’ve had to back off the training a bit and reset my system, which as an athlete I think takes far more discipline to hold back than to train hard and to push.
There is more to Ironman than just Kona
But hoping to be back to good health in April and build-up for the European summer and really setting my sights on full Ironman distance this season. Injuries and illness have stopped me doing that, I’ve never raced a full Ironman.
I’m sure that I’ll be in it thinking: What was I thinking? But yeah, I really want to give the full Ironman distance a go and potentially it could suit my strengths. If I’m fit enough, Bolton, UK Ironman or Wales, both of them obviously hilly, suit me and will be fairly accessible for me in the UK. I’ll return to London in the summer. Currently picking up some Ironman races and we’ll see what warm-up races before that over the half distance.
DK: Kona, if you’re looking to do the full Ironman, it must be on the agenda?
PE: You know, no, well no, it’s actually, it takes a real commitment to get the KPR, the Kona Pro Ranking points to qualify. So as a pro you have to be invited to race the World Champs, half or the full. I often think as a pro, if you haven’t got a shot at the Top 10 it’s a really expensive trip. I’d have to be honest and say finances would hold me back on that score. Yeah, I think I’m going to tick off an Ironman first before I take on the best that’s Kona, but who knows!
DK: Fair enough and there’s plenty of races, not only in Europe but across the world for people to choose in terms of Ironman. You don’t have to go to the other side of the planet to race a really good event. Parys, before I let you go there’s a question I ask people often and what I love is each and every person has something that works for them. It’s giving nutrition advice or a single piece of nutritional advice. What would yours be?
Work out what works for you
PE: Sure, it’s hard to narrow it down and I just feel like I’ve been on such a journey with my nutrition. But you know, I think you’d sum it up by saying: Work out what works for you. I couldn’t eat what other people eat but you figure it out and I think we covered it.
The most revealing thing for me was when I first started keeping a food diary. I don’t do it all the time, just every now and then but particularly when I had the nutritional consults. Writing down – honestly – everything I ate was really informative. Then when you look back on it, you can see what are your eating habits and just to think about what you’re putting into your body and eat clean.
It just makes such a difference when you’re asking a lot of your body, you’ve got to put good stuff in. We’re Formula One cars, you know, and so we need good fuel. So just take a look at what you’re eating and think about what you’re putting in, is probably the most important thing.
DK: You’re a Formula One car, most people are sedans, so we’re a little bit different from you. I like that you said ‘honestly’ keep the food diary. Because it doesn’t matter who you are, at some point you’re going to eat something that’s a little bit bad and go: No, I don’t need to add that to the list!
So very important as Parys just pointed out, be honest because you’re only cheating yourself if you’re not honest on that food diary. Parys, if people want to follow your career, if they want to see what you’ve done; do you have a Twitter handle, are there places on the web people can check you out?
DK: Awesome, I’ll put links to that up on the show notes on the website, 32Gi.com. Thanks for joining us on another edition of the podcast and a very special thanks to Parys Edwards. It’s going to be great to see her road to recovery and her getting through that first and possibly winning her age group in her first Ironman event.