Interview with Pam Boteler | Precision Nutrition

Interview with Pam Boteler

By Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD

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At PN, we recognize that making good food choices is an important consideration. We know that many folks opt for plant-based diets, so we’ve included lots of information about how to do it properly in our PN System, as well as in the PN Member Zone.

Last week we featured All About Raw Food and profiled author Lierre Keith, who was a vegan for 20 years before making significant changes to her nutrition. This week we profile an athlete who took another route: Pam Boteler, a sprint canoeist and raw vegan advocate.

Here, Pam talks about her diet, her champion mindset, and how nutrition fuels her world-class performance.

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Photo credit: Cameron Davidson

What does sprint canoeing demand of you?

Sprint canoeing requires a lot of things: balance, speed, precision, power, and endurance.

You’re not just dealing with your own body; you’re dealing with equipment attached to it. You need a lot of skill to manipulate the boat, along with being physically fit.

You’re outside; you have to deal with the weather too.

What is your training like?

I train 6 days a week at the Washington DC Canoe Club, in Georgetown DC. I have a coach who was the former top kayaker in Poland. I also have another canoe coach in Gainesville, GA, who was a top canoeist in Romania and is one of the top canoeists in the U.S.

We practice on the water; for me water practice can last anywhere from 1-2 hours
min, depending on the workout session and time of year (longer in winter).

I work out with a strength and conditioning coach in the evening twice a week, and twice a week I follow the coaches’ generic weight lifting program that’s modified to meet my needs.

I work out with a professional strength and conditioning coach in the evening twice
a week, and the 3rd or 4th weights workout I follow the coaches’ generic weight lifting
program that’s modified to meet my needs.

I run too. Running varies throughout the year; I do more in the winter. Or I cross train after practice.

I do additional flexibility work on my own..

For my technique, in addition to water work, I do land work on the dock on my own, or in front of a mirror. I reproduce the position I’m in in the boat, reinforcing my
technique over and over.

I also do a lot of mental training. I think about my sport – envisioning me in the boat, paddling correctly, like the top paddlers in the world; I do visual imagery, but also “feel-agery”, where I try to feel what I’m supposed to be doing; I think about eating and sleeping well, and staying positive, and surrounding myself with positive supportive people.

There’s a lot of extra stuff that’s part of the training — that’s why I call it holistic training. It all needs to be together in one package.

Some days I train twice daily. Other days I do just one 2-hour session in the morning. On Saturdays I have longer sessions — paddling, running, weights — which could be 2.5 hours, easily, usually closer to 3.

So I train about 10-12 hours a week.

How do you manage these demands?

A lot of it is about my mindset and how I organize myself. I’m at a point in life where I need to be efficient, and be precise.

I don’t have time to goof around because I work full time. I do WomenCAN stuff, my website, write articles, keep up with information, relationship building — I’ve got to email, talk with people, do research… all that takes time.

Thus I really have to organize myself well and make sure I get enough sleep, along with “recovery” in general (which means sometimes saying “no” and not doing anything).

Again, this reflects my concept of holistic training: You’ve got to bring a whole person to the table to get the job done and remove the weakest link.

There are so many elements of attaining optimal peak performance. You’ve got to make sure you go in 100% and leave no stone unturned.

Some people might think I’m a little too anal, but I don’t want to do this in moderation. If I want to do something, I want to do it well, hit everything I can as well as I can, and be as strong as possible.

Talk about the importance of mental preparation and focus.

You can do all the physical training, but without mental training to work through the pain threshold, or to prepare for the anxiety and chaos of the race start, you can completely destroy yourself mentally. You need to be sharp.

When I eat too many cooked foods now, heavy foods, including those with a lot of condiments like salts, oils and spices, they tend to weigh me down, or back me up. They make me feel foggy, and on edge. When I eat lighter but more nutritionally dense foods, I feel more mental clarity and focus. I can process things better.

This is true emotionally as well. Many people, including me, are emotional eaters — and I am, essentially, a long-time food addict. I recognize the triggers now and know how it affects my performance, and my overall well-being.

Our relationship with food is very similar to human relationships.

As I started to have more epiphanies about the foods I was eating and the problems they caused me (stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, lack of emotional, physical, and mental recovery, etc.), it became apparent that my food relationship caused me the exact same problems in my “real life” with people and daily challenges.

This dysfunctional food relationship kept me from realizing my true potential — not just as an athlete, but as a human being.

(By the way, elimination diets include getting rid of negative people too!)

If you’re coming into a race or training sessions, you’ve got to be able to have a place of settling, a place of peace where you can process those emotions and let them flow through you, like letting the tornado run its course through town.

Most of us block that. Too often we try to suppress things, rather than clearing the highway to let that tornado run through us. It is OK to “park” things –- i.e., set them aside so you can do the task at hand. But the emotions must still be dealt with or they will come back again, with greater force.

I still make mistakes, but that just reinforces good habits and the path I’m on.

With good nutrition, I spend less time feeling like I’m “dragged down”, walking through quicksand, foggy, or depressed; and more time with clarity and focus and greater vision. I’m more productive.

How do you meet the demands of your sport with your diet?

I feel I am stronger as a body unit than I’ve ever been before.

True, I haven’t been without injury. My food didn’t cause me to dislocate my shoulder and shred the tendons and ligaments. The injury was a gap in my strength/conditioning and that has been corrected.

But the way I eat helped me recover more quickly. I was back racing 3 months after the injury and racing close to personal best times. I look back at that and still find it remarkable, given the severity of the tears.

When I eat plant-based, I can get the calories I need in a manner that is digested and absorbed quickly. I can use the energy quickly and it doesn’t weigh me down.

The food I eat is hydrating. Athletes need to stay hydrated. Processed foods are not hydrating. The last thing I want is to rob Peter to pay Paul by relying on quick sources of energy that don’t actually nourish or hydrate me.

To fuel my workouts, fruit is #1 — it has the right nutrition and type of energy.

Once you look at the biology of it, the source of fuel becomes kind of a no-brainer. A pile of bananas, a watermelon, grapes, coconut water, mangoes, these are great things to get me through a workout, and they’re friendly to my digestive system.

Fruit smoothies are ideal. Or “mono-meals”: for example, I’ll just grab a watermelon and scoop out of it like a bowl. (During the summer, after Saturday workouts, I typically have 4-5 little kids coming up to me asking for pieces of watermelon or cantaloupe!) Then greens and vegetables. I really love banana smoothies with coconut water or just plain water and maybe some ice for thickness. Later in the day, green smoothies are a treat (e.g., bananas, kale and coconut water). Blending the greens helps you increase your greens consumption (which needs to be high on a raw vegan diet).

This is simple and uncomplicated.   If it becomes complicated, it’s because I made it complicated!

I don’t want an inflamed bowel and trashed adrenal glands. I want to take as good care of my body as people take of their car. People spend more time worrying about what they feed their dog, really.

How did you become a raw vegan?

For me, it wasn’t just a dietary change. It was a personal transformation.

Change doesn’t happen until it’s more painful not to change, and/or that the change is so profound, the results are so profound, that going back is not an option.

I used to be just in pain avoidance mode, trying to find ways not to feel pain. Now, I’m gravitating to something — towards thriving and optimal health.

For me, there is no going back to eating meat. I don’t want a plate of pasta, I don’t want a plate of pancakes with a side of hash browns.

About 8 years ago I was in a relationship with someone who was very well informed about nutrition. At that time, I’d had irritable bowel syndrome problems for almost 15 years and was still struggling with an eating disorder (for almost 2 decades).

He took me down a path of various cleansing protocols and dietary changes.  The most significant dietary change at the time was to give up cereal (for breakfast and dinner), pasta, muffins, bagels and almost all breads. These were very addictive for me and I finally figured out how addictive when I eliminated them (and then later tried them again!).

My “aha” moment was listening to the audiobook “Milk: The Deadly Poison” by Robert Cohen in late 2005, then researching dairy more thoroughly. (See All About Milk for more.)

I was stunned at what I read, but then did my own experiments on myself eliminating dairy, one step at a time. Dairy was always paired with cereals and other processed/grain products and in protein powders).

This experiment was life-altering. It was the beginning of the next major phase of personal transformation.

For me, eating plant-based and raw is not about an identity. I never pursued, and still do not pursue, a label.

I was, and still am, razor focused on health and feeling my best, so I can be my best in everything I do. Thus I pursue a “path” or a lifestyle to get to this objective.

Right now, a diet composed largely of as many whole, fresh, ripe, raw, and preferably organic fruits and vegetables as I can helps me achieve this.  I prefer to say “I eat a plant-based diet”.

What role does the concept of “ethical eating” have in your dietary choices?

It is impossible to be in any vegan or raw vegan circle and not read or hear about the effects of the beef, dairy, and grain industries not just on our health, but on the animals and the environment.

I began researching the horrific treatment of animals and the disturbing and disgusting drugs and other chemicals and environmental hazards that are a part of what we put into our mouths every day.

I realized that eating animal products and loading up on even grains (which also feed the beef/dairy industry by the way) not only contributed to  ill-health in myself, but to disease in family, friends and people throughout the world.  And research continues to demonstrate the damaging effects of these industries on the environment.

So, yes, eating primarily raw vegan means I not only express compassion for myself, but for animals and the environment. It all fits together.

My first job was to tackle things I had in my control.

From the beginning, my number one priority was my own health and wellness. I cannot take care of anyone or anything else in this world if I do not take care of me first.

Once I got “me” better, I saw that the raw vegan route has a direct, immediate and indisputable impact on enhancing my athletic performance and my longevity in sport. Now it’s an obvious choice.

I still make mistakes and sometimes eat cooked food or grains.   Sometimes I do it if I’m going out to eat, or if I am unprepared, or just lazy.   These are hard lessons learned but luckily they’re fewer and fewer these days.

The difference in how I feel being raw – eating primarily fruit – and when I eat non-raw foods is astounding.  It is profound.  There is no turning back.

Everyone is on their own journey and I respect that.  I used to be non-vegan and was extended grace by others further along on their journey.  I only want to extend the same grace.

I try not to make my personal relationships about the food on the table, but about the spirit, energy and the relationship at the table.   I’m enhancing my sense of humour to help defuse some very uncomfortable situations!

I am finding more doors opening with people than closing.  When they learn my focus is on my health/well-being and maximum sports performance, no one can argue with that — or beat me in that argument.

I do not preach what I do or what another person “should” do, or make it superior; I just do it, and they see the results.  People get it, and me, without me saying a word.

How do you manage daily-life eating challenges?

I make more frequent trips to the grocery store for fresh produce and try to hit farmers markets more. I do have to plan better regarding quantities and stages of ripeness of various foods and preparing my daily food needs.

I research restaurants beforehand to see if I can find something on the menu.  I also make suggestions for places to go.

I am not afraid to ask for something to be prepared differently than is on the menu or ask for something separately that is not on the menu, but that I know would be ingredients in other dishes (like tomatoes or cucumbers). Unfortunately, it sometimes does cause a scene, particularly if the wait-staff is either impatient, or not educated about food in its natural state (i.e., no salt, oil, more tomatoes please, etc.).

When eating at another person’s house, I always offer to bring a dish – usually a large salad or large bowl of fruit, like a big fruit salad (knowing I’ll eat half!).

Recently we had a big regatta at my Canoe Club and afterward we prepared a large meal for participants (a Thanksgiving meal for our Canadian friends). I prepared a huge salad with just greens, grated bell peppers and carrots, and cherry tomatoes, and prepared a dressing in the blender with just tomatoes, avocado, basil, dried tomatoes, and a little garlic. I was so excited and happy that everyone liked it!! Figuring out how to make something that others will like is very gratifying for me.

Dating can be difficult.  It can at times be a bit of a barrier, as if eating this way is less fun.  Frankly, I can think of more places to be fun than the dinner table.

What about supplementation?

Instead of seeking to supplement — or “add to” — the diet to make yourself feel better, consider taking away and removing the root cause of your problems (be it lack of sleep, too many bad fats in the diet, too much stress, too many starchy and complex carbohydrates, etc.).

Seek first to remove the underlying dietary problem.  Leave no stone unturned.

There are instances where supplementation might be warranted to get an individual through a health crisis, but these are supplements, not substitutes for good healthful living practices such as a plant-based diet in its raw state.

What do you imagine is the future of vegan athletics?

I see the future as definitely vegan, but moreso low fat raw vegan.

I have heard numerous stories of nutritionists with national team programs prescribing vegetarian or vegan diets to athletes, but they develop diet plans based heavily on pastas, grains, legumes, oils, salts, etc. These foods dominate the nutritional plan.

As a result, athletes become lethargic over time and lose their power – their “tiger instinct”.   They blame it on those pansy vegetarians and vegans, and not on the lack of fruits and vegetables in their diet — and adequate calories consumed from these foods.

Getting enough fruit/veg and adequate calories is the #1 priority for fueling every cell in the body, but they aren’t doing that. So they go back to drug laced meat and dairy products and continue on with their short careers.

The IOC already promotes fruits and vegetables as the number one and two sources for athlete nutrition, as do all of the major medical journals for overall health.   Tennis great Martina Navratilova proved that at age 50 she could still be a vegan national champion in an incredibly competitive environment.  And NBA player Rodney Grandison extended his already long basketball career several years beyond what he expected with a raw vegan diet.  There are raw vegan athletes today running incredible times on the roads, winning major Ironman triathlon events, even body builders winning competitions – clean.

And most important – these champions are not just champions for a moment, they remain at the top for a very long time.  Recovery time with this diet and lifestyle is dramatically improved, particularly as one gets older and recovery typically falls off dramatically.  Careers are extended because the health of the athlete predominates.

These athletes are healthy people! Look at Olympic and pro athletes after they retire.  Are they healthy?

“Raise your game” today and reap the rewards.   Leave no stone unturned in how you live your life, how you go about your daily activities, and for athletes to weekend warriors, how you train – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

A better “you” is possible.  Just take it, and enjoy, one, luscious, fruity bite at a time.

Pam’s site: JustCanoeIt

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Learn more

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