What multi-sport athletes should know about the latest craze in wellness.
by Jennifer Ward Barber
After competing at IRONMAN 70.3 Vineman in July, I took a short break from training and all the nutritional discipline that comes with it. Oatmeal? Try chocolate croissants. Green smoothies? Try cocktails. I returned home needing to recover not only from my race, but from my post-race celebrations as well.
Enter the cleanse. I’d read about juice cleanses everywhere from Vogue to The New York Times, and was eager to test the waters. I found a one-day cleanse that looked appealing and picked up my bag of goodies the day I got home. To offer a perspective from the other end of the seriousness spectrum, I enlisted local pro triathlete, Beth Walsh, who tried a longer cleanse after IRONMAN Cairns in June (where she placed fifth).
But first, the basics.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to look very far or order expensive bottles from the other side of the country: a small company called Beaming had recently set up shop in my neighborhood, and their One-Day Reset cleanse was the perfect introduction to cleansing.
According to Beaming’s in-house expert Natasha McKeon, cleansing can help relieve the liver, colon and kidneys of their load of impurities and reset the body at a cellular level. It also helps kickstart healthier habits by revealing what your current diet is lacking. “You may not realize how depleted you were,” McKeon says. “When done right, a cleanse can be life-changing. Instead of counting down the days until you can have a Diet Coke or a piece of pizza, you realize you don’t want what you used to crave.” She adds that a long-term approach is more about balance than rules, but cleansing can help athletes get back to neutral.
The Mayo Clinic’s Katherine Zeratsky echoes McKeon’s philosophy. She says there are benefits to overhauling your normal eating habits and purposefully excluding processed foods (and their extra fats and sugars) for a focused period of time.
What to look for
There are many different kinds of cleanses on the market, all offering their own spin on a new and improved you. There’s the famous Master Cleanse, the 21-Day Clean Cleanse, the BluePrint Cleanse and countless others. Sifting out the good from the bad is the next critical step for triathletes.
McKeon suggests that the typical juice cleanse—where you drink all of your nutrients—is less than optimal for endurance athletes. Her recommended four-day cleanses include a combination of high-protein, low-glycemic smoothies, soups, cold-pressed juices and raw entrées for dinner. The key is volume: “If you’re taking a full four days off training, the four-day cleanse is perfect as-is,” she says. If athletes are still training daily, she recommends adding items like avocado, almonds, celery and jicama to support their activity level.
What to watch out for
McKeon says that athletes should be wary of juice cleanses that offer strictly high-glycemic juices. “You need to be wary of these because they cause spikes in blood sugar,” she says.
Going too low-calorie can also be dangerous. As an athlete, you need to be able to sustain your energy level, not become starved or deprived. “You need to be consuming something healthy every two to three hours to keep your energy up,” McKeon says.
When should you cleanse?
There are a few key times that are optimal for triathletes to embark on a cleanse and, depending on your level, different applications. Below is my take on when and why a cleanse might work for an age-grouper, while Walsh’s take is from a professional’s standpoint.
Reset after a race: Racing can leave you completely depleted and, after a few days of recovery (eating and drinking what your body craves), cleansing can help you bounce back into training more quickly by flooding your body with energizing nutrients. “After something strenuous like completing an IRONMAN is a great time to detoxify the body,” McKeon says. In addition to replenishing electroytes and hydrating, McKeon recommends avoiding processed foods high in sodium and refined sugars and grains. “Go for lots of organic greens and a raw, plant-based protein blend,” she says.
→Age-grouper take: “I recovered well calorie-wise from Vineman 70.3, but the one-day cleanse provided a flood of nutrients I’d been missing.”
→Pro take: “After something like an IRONMAN it’s just good to have all those raw foods and juices in your body. They also offer great anti-inflammatory properties,” says Walsh, who is also a coach. Walsh cautions against cleansing before a race, however: “It shouldn’t be a last-minute effort to get down to race weight,” she adds. “It’s not your normal diet and you don’t want to mess with that a week before a race.”
Kick start a new training season: It’s been a month since you crossed the finish line of your A-race, and you’re feeling a little stale in both body and mind. Cleansing can offer a physical “reset,” launching you back into healthy eating habits and helping to kill cravings. Bringing a new seriousness to your diet can give you a mental boost as you enter a new, more disciplined season.
→Age-grouper take: “It’s easy for me to ‘let myself go’ after a race. The one-day cleanse stopped the spiral and made me realize how much I enjoyed feeling ‘clean’ and healthy.”
→Pro take: “I started my cleanse as I began a new training block, which I might not recommend for other people—I was doing pretty heavy training. You have to make it right for you. I added in some higher-glycemic raw, natural foods to supplement the juices: bananas, raw almonds and avocado. I’d recommend triathletes cleanse at least two weeks before they get back into serious training.”
Combat a bad habit: Is that late-afternoon cup of coffee making it hard for you to fall asleep? Having trouble killing that 8 p.m. ice cream craving? Cleansing can flood your body and palate with fresh, healthy foods and help kill the reliance on external stimulants and sugar.
→Age-grouper take: “All it took was two weeks for me to start feeling overly reliant on coffee and, the more I gave into my cravings, the more they spiked. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed eating fresh foods and had started to feel sluggish and complacent about my diet.”
→Pro take: “After shoving gels in my mouth for a whole IRONMAN, I rarely crave sweet stuff—more the pizza and burger variety. The week after I eat whatever I feel like eating and give myself a break before getting back to work. I was really excited to start my cleanse, not because I’d developed a bad habit, but to start to make more conscious choices of what I chose to eat.”
While cleansing may not make you feel like a completely different athlete, it’s more about making the mental switch to treating your body well as you head into the next training block, and reminding yourself of the variety of healthy foods waiting to help fuel you—and keep you healthy—for the next season’s races.
If you’re interested in cleansing, there are many options on the market, some better than others. Check out Beaming’s raw food cleanses on their website. Experts also recommend Whole 30 (a challenging cleanse for long-term habit resets), Clean Cleanse (an approachable, book-led cleanse) , or The Thrive Diet by former IRONMAN pro triathlete Brendan Brazier, a book that speaks