My Path to Performance By Robby Bell

We all have the potential inside of us to achieve our goals. When you close your eyes and imagine what you want to look like, how you want to feel, how you’d like to act or perform, you are capable of making that your reality, but it’s become common practice for most people to have a list excuses for not getting what they want. Or they buy into the idea that if they just keep plugging away or simply “try harder” that somehow their results will change or improve, but this is a flawed outlook.

I know because I used to be the king of underperformance.

I wasn’t happy with the way I looked (I was skin and bones and had horrible acne), the way I felt (I was constantly tired and unmotivated), and (apart from a few flashes of performance) I was generally viewed as an underachiever.

I once took offense when someone said that I had lucked into my past results in racing, but I now know it’s because it was a fairly accurate statement. I had some raw talent, yes, but no concept of how to make the best use of it, or how I could improve myself and begin achieving my goals.

I felt like there was something standing in my way, holding me back from attaining what I desired and for the majority of my career, especially when it came to my physical and mental performance, I thought there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t exert myself for longer than an hour and a half without hitting such a wall that it felt like my body would literally start eating itself. I went to doctors in search of answers, but blood work never raised any cause for concern (the biggest statistic I received was that my cholesterol was “maybe borderline low”) and the doctors never had an answer for me.

I did have one doc try to pitch the idea that I was a “thoroughbred, not a marathoner” and maybe my body type just wasn’t made for endurance sports. That all sounded great but for the fact that I couldn’t make it through a couple thirty-minute motos at high intensity without bonking.

Moving on.

My next step was to see a sports psychologist. I’d built such a self-perpetuating cycle of failing to reach my potential and a psychological fear of not living up to expectations that I, and many of those around me, thought it might all be mental. After a few months, with little change in my results, I came to the conclusion that the sports psych was good for some visualization techniques, but no real breakthroughs.

Dang it.

And it seemed no matter what I did from a training aspect, nothing would improve. I did intervals on the bicycle, intervals running, three-hour bicycle rides, strength training with heavy weights, strength training with light weights, swimming, yoga, short motos on the dirt bike, long motos, even two-hour “practice races” and nothing seemed to make an overwhelming difference in my performance, or even the way I looked for that matter.

It had almost become a self fulfilling prophecy on race day: I’d get so nervous that I could barely eat anything, then I’d freak out because if I didn’t eat enough I’d surely bonk, but then if I tried to force myself to eat I’d nearly throw it all up and before the gate had even fallen I was torturing myself with thoughts of how I was going to fail.

I’m still surprised at times, considering how much I struggled throughout the beginning of my career, that the people around me still believed in me enough to keep providing opportunities to race and try to work through my problems. For that I am truly grateful.

But enough about those issues, let’s move on to how I was treating my body.

I grew up as a convenience food junkie and for the first twenty-six years of my life I didn’t appreciate the difference between eating some pringles and eating some organic celery. I was just like the overwhelming majority of people who look at food as a means of calories and not much more. I loved McDonalds, Little Caesars pizza, anything breaded and fried, and I had a particular affinity to those Bertolli frozen bag pasta dinners. When I did want to eat better, I thought a subway sandwich and a bag of Sun Chips was the epitome of a healthy meal and I’d snack on Wheat Thins, Cheetos and Fritos on a daily basis. I hated vegetables, didn’t know any fruits outside of apples and bananas and a salad didn’t represent nearly enough calories, in my mind, to keep me going; that’s what those frail vegetarians ate (the irony being the fact that I was as skinny and frail as they come at the time).

I was unaware of how unhealthy my relationship with food was. I’d constantly be craving something to keep my energy levels from crashing and I would eat anything and everything I could get my hands. This led me to think that I was hypoglycemic, meaning that if my blood sugar levels dipped, so did my mental and physical performance. The answer was to keep food around me all the time so I could eat the moment I started feeling sluggish or grumpy and, for a while, that’s the way I operated on a daily basis: keeping my blood sugar levels elevated (sounds a bit like the cause of diabetes, and looking back, it’s a little scary to think I was on that path).

My great hypoglycemia hypothesis could be considered the first nutritional epiphany of my life, but it certainly wasn’t the last…

During the 2008 Olympics, and Michael Phelps’ dominance in particular, I remember reading that his diet for performance consisted of nearly 10,000 calories a day, filled with foods like syrup-covered pancakes, chocolate-chip waffles, mountains of pasta, pretty much anything calorie-dense. Now that was a bandwagon worth jumping on! I quickly hatched the idea that I needed more body fat and bulk to last longer in competition and so I went through a spell of trying to eat over 6,000 calories a day. The weight-gain theory worked like a charm: I went from weighing just over 150lbs to the mid 180s, but to my chagrin I didn’t perform any better (sometimes worse) and as fun as it may sound to eat an unrestricted amount of calories, it was actually a lot of work and I began to feel quite sick from it.

Scratch that plan.

Through different opinions, and some research of my own, I believed I needed more vitamins and minerals and so I jumped head first into the world of supplementation (perhaps by now you’ve noticed that when I decide to try something, I pretty much go all in). After noticing that when I consistently took supplements my acne cleared up slightly, I had my next great epiphany: if a little bit of vitamins and minerals was good for my skin, then twenty-times that amount must be great! So I went through my next stretch of taking over twenty pills a day under the assumption that they would be my magic elixir and my key to success. I’d even cleaned up my diet some. I was avoiding fast food (other than the occasional In-n-Out trip, because, well…it’s In-n-Out), I was eating less “bad for you fat”, more “good carbs” from rice, potatoes, and whole wheat pasta and breads, and even throwing in some fruits and veggies, but my skin didn’t clear up any more, I hadn’t gained much endurance, and I was still struggling at the races. Shoot.

So what next you ask?

Well, after watching a documentary entitled Forks Over Knives, I was instantly brainwashed into thinking that meat, fat and cholesterol were crimes against humanity and for two weeks I went completely vegan. That’s right, in my desperation to find an answer I had gone from scoffing at the “diet of frailty” to giving it a right go. Now as for how my body reacted… Let’s just say that was the longest two weeks of my life: I felt more tired, anemic, sick, and generally run down than I ever had before. Vegan may work for some people, and more power to you if it does, but it certainly didn’t work for me.

All in all I wasn’t much closer to finding the answers I was searching for, and that’s when my own personal Great Depression hit.

Around the summer of 2011 I was in a real downward emotional spiral: I still didn’t like the way I looked or felt, my racing career was teetering on the brink of extinction and, because of how helpless I felt, my personal relationships were suffering as well. I remember after attending the Washougal MX National that year and struggling to ride anywhere near as well as I’d wanted, I was over it.

For a couple months I literally parked the dirt bike and sulked.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue racing (or if I was capable for that matter). Then I’d think of what job I would get and I couldn’t make up my mind with that either. I didn’t really talk to my friends and I pretty much secluded myself from most of the things in my life, more or less trying to hide from it.

Good times.

It was around this time that the gluten-free diet trend was really gaining momentum. Though I’d heard of it before, I just couldn’t imagine life without all of the wonderful breads, pastas and deep-dish pizzas I so voraciously consumed. Besides, conventional wisdom clearly showed that I needed all of those carbs for any hope of having enough energy to train and compete. But in probably one of the most important moments of clarity I’ve ever experienced, I remember thinking to myself: if I just continue to do what I’ve always done, how can I ever hope for change or improvement.

It was at that defining moment that I decided to do a complete about face from the food I had grown dependent on over the last twenty-six years, foods that are advertised as healthy and preached as mandatory for athletes, and try something for myself.

I’d love nothing more than to say that going gluten-free was an easy transition, or that I felt like a new man immediately, but it wasn’t, and I didn’t. On top of that I had a queue of people telling me I was being foolish and that it would never work, “it was just another of my fad diet ideas”. But then, after a week or so, I noticed a difference. My acne had cleared some more, I wasn’t as bloated, and the arthritis pain in my left ankle (the result of shattering it years ago), pain that had kept me from enjoying my passion for running, was gone. I did simply feel better. I had more energy. I wanted to test that this wasn’t just something in my head and so I’d have a sandwich, or some pizza and the bloating, worsening acne, sluggishness and arthritis pain would come storming right back.

It was quite odd at first, the thought that I had control over how my body felt through what I ate, but I was excited by the fact that I could train a little harder and that my performance and endurance was improving. I felt that I was on the right path and this feeling of control gave me the courage of commitment and a passion to continue learning about the effects food can have on the body.

*As a note, I do realize that not everyone reacts to gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains) the same way I do, some are worse, some don’t notice a difference at all. Having said that, I do believe that wheat and grains (especially in their modern processed state…don’t even get me started on GMOs) stress the human body. There is no downside to cutting out these foods and the potential health benefits surely make it worth a try.

It was through this research that I began questioning notions that had been as good as scientific “fact”. I was discovering that saturated fat isn’t bad for you, and can in fact help your brain function better; that cholesterol isn’t the enemy as it is actually a carrier in your blood, moving nutrients to places they’re needed. I was learning that processed foods/carbs were detrimental, actually requiring more nutrients from your body, in order to break them down and metabolize them, than they provide; they cause more of a burden to your system than they’re worth. This also meant that a lot of the gluten-free food varieties I was consuming in an effort to keep my meals looking like “traditional American” food had the same negative effect.

As a result, I’ve continued to simplify my diet, cutting out simple carbs and sugars, eating quality meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and healthy oils, and I’ve been amazed as I’m continually rewarded with better performance and endurance; my skin keeps getting clearer (even some of the scarring from years of horrible acne); I have fewer and fewer mood swings, and for the first time in my life I’m starting to build a little muscle onto my frame, even though I’ve actually lost twenty pounds from my heaviest of 185lbs (during the Phelps-inspired-diet era) and leveled off at a lean 165lbs.

I believe that because I was constantly eating foods (pasta, bread, rice, and more or less anything processed) that took more nutrients to break down than they provided (among other deleterious effects), my body was constantly working on overdrive trying to balance and cleanse itself of any waste I had ingested. So, during a race or training exercise, not only was I exerting energy to compete, my body was also strained from the deficit it was forced to operate under, using yet more energy and taxing my system further as it mobilized the excess toxins. When I look at it from this context, it begins to make sense that the cleaner, simpler and more “nutrient-dense” I eat (eating quite less than I used to as well, especially from a caloric standpoint), the more efficient my body becomes, the more my performance and endurance improves, and the more my physical appearance improves as well, as my body can finally begin to heal and improve itself.

And so I need less because I use less. Crazy notion.

Probably the most profound effect I’ve noticed is the difference in my mentality. I feel more confident than at any point in my life, more positive and optimistic, more driven, and at the same time more content with myself than ever before. As a result, not only am I performing better, but I’m also treating those around me better, and my relationships have improved across the board. I have researched that some foods, especially wheat, can affect the way the human brain works, causing addiction, mood swings and even changes in behavior. While it is possible that’s the reason for the difference I’m feeling, I can’t say for sure, and it could also stem from the fact that the decision to change my diet was my own, and one I committed to even with some heavy opposition from friends and family, which can build character.

Whatever the scientific reasons for the positive changes may be, it still comes down to feeling the difference, and I wouldn’t have believed it for myself if I hadn’t felt it firsthand (and I continue to feel it on a daily basis). I had no appreciation for how big of a role what I put into my body played on my health and performance and how certain foods can stress the body. Stress that can be expressed as an unexplainable mental fog or irritability; maybe a general lack of energy or sluggishness (I do feel I have that “kid energy” back, where I just want to do everything at breakneck pace); or it could be showing itself in complete silence, as any feeling, even if it’s negative, if experienced for long enough starts to be accepted as normal. The point is to just give more thought to what you put into your body, experience the difference for yourself, and decide whether or not you want to be a believer.

After experiencing years of personal struggle, I sometimes wish I had someone explaining this to me when I was younger. On one hand I feel it would have saved so much anger and frustration if I had someone providing the knowledge to make the right choices, but on the other hand, I’ve also thought about the fact that I might not have been ready to believe it at the time.

You see, after first experiencing the difference for myself, I became quite preachy about the connection between food and health, because I believe in it so strongly, but I’m slowly realizing that it’s a personal choice we all have to make. Some people are so addicted, or dependent, or even happy, with their choices that there’s no talking them out of it; they’re not ready. But for those who believe they’re capable of more, or want to look, feel, and be healthier, you have the potential to achieve your goals and I believe the most important aspect of your life that affects the way you think, feel and perform on a daily basis is what you choose to put in your body. I urge you to choose wisely.

*I do feel compelled to say that I’m not a doctor and have no formal education in diet and nutrition. Everything I’ve learned has been through my own personal research, reading scientific studies, articles, and books, and the knowledge I’ve gained through personal trial and error and experience. If you’d like more info, or are interested in some dietary coaching, please contact me at RobbyBellTraining@gmail.com, through Facebook message (http://www.facebook.com/rbell32), and visit my website: www.robbybellracing.com.