Professional triathlete Pip Taylor on food and familyBack to Blog
7 October 2015
We've been very privileged to recently cross paths with Pip Taylor (professional triathlete, nutritionist and mum of two). With an impressive 15-year CV competing at the very highest level, Pip is nevertheless one of the most grounded, down-to-earth people one could possibly meet.
She's also the author of the recently published book The Athlete's Fix (Velopress), a fantastic resource for athletes interested in better performance through eating well.
Pip chats to us about her journey in elite racing, training and eating smarter and putting family first.
Good Fuel Co: You’ve competed at the very highest level in triathlon for the past 15 years, including representing Australia and reaching the number 1 world ranking. How did you get into triathlon? What made you realise triathlon was the sport for you?
Pip Taylor: Growing up I was a competitive swimmer and a runner – racing at state and national level as a junior – as well as playing other school sports. I always loved the training – I think the routine and discipline as well as the sense of achievement that came from pushing myself in training and racing really suited me. Plus of course it was very social – I made lots of friends through my sport.
But as I finished school I started to tire of swimming and I was suffering a few running injuries so looked for something fresh. I actually did some aptitude testing at the AIS where they put you through a range of tests and correlate that to elite athletes across all their sports to see what you might be best suited to.
Triathlon was the one that sounded the most appealing or interesting to me – the multi sport disciples was exactly the kind of change I needed rather than a single focus sport. So that was it! I was given a contact for a coach and started training. I had a lot to learn but within months I had qualified for World Champs and soon after I found myself racing the F1 series (the super sprint series that used to be held over the Aussie summer).
It certainly was initiation by fire as I found myself racing against some of the biggest names in the sport at the time - the likes of Michellie Jones, Loretta Harrop, Nikki Hackett, Barb Lindquist - on TV in the 5th or 6th triathlon I had ever done. But I was hooked and have loved the sport ever since! But wow 15 years – that makes me sound really old!
Good Fuel Co: Being a professional triathlete is a huge commitment, and not just in actual training times. What other areas of life does your job require discipline? How has it shaped you as a person?
Pip Taylor: I actually really like the discipline and routine or structure that triathlon, or training in general brings to your life. Sure there are times, when just like any other job you have an off day and don’t really feel like turning up – but that happens so rarely and the rest of the time you just feel so grateful that sport has been able to provide you with all the opportunities and that you are lucky enough to call it a profession. Absolutely there are things that you miss out on – extra family time, friends birthdays or weddings when you are overseas – but that can happen with any profession so I don’t think they are really sacrifices at all.
You do learn a lot as an athlete about discipline, time management, planning and mental and emotional strength or control. Absolutely these are skills that I take across into life outside of sport and I completely agree that experiences as an athlete have shaped and influenced me as a person too. You learn a lot about yourself when you are competing, and especially when your pay packet depends on it – you really expose your weaknesses and identify your strengths; you learn how to deal with different scenarios when under pressure and deal with different people from widely different backgrounds. These are all life skills.
Good Fuel Co: What do you love about triathlon? What drives you to do it day in and day out?
Pip Taylor: I like having goals – the thing with triathlon is that with three sports there is always so much to work on. For me that process and feeling of improvement is something that I love and gives me so much personal satisfaction. I love to train hard and being fit and being able to knock out a key session is really an unbeatable feeling. It’s a feeling that I really missed in the early stages of trying to get back to fitness post babies!! Looking back on the years I have spent in the sport it is amazing the experiences I have had – from the places I have travelled to the people I have met and the opportunities that have presented that would not have otherwise.
Good Fuel Co: You've travelled to different countries and have experienced different cultures, people and traditions. What have been some of your fondest food memories? How does food enrich relationships in other cultures?
Pip Taylor: Honestly I think sometimes I get more excited about planning races based on the foods than on the actual race! To me food and food culture is integral to really ‘seeing’ a place. From 3 star Michelin restaurants in New York and France to street food in Korea or Japan – some of my fondest memories are centred around food and the people associated with the eating of that food. All the races I do, I look up where the farmers markets are, where the good coffee shops are, what the local picks for tops foods are….its important! Yes I’m there to race but I also like to eat and eat well.
Good Fuel Co: Throughout your sporting career you’ve worked with some of the best minds in sports nutrition. Who has been your biggest influence?
Pip Taylor: Without a doubt Greg Cox has been a huge positive influence in terms of my sports nutrition guidance. I first met Greg as an AIS athlete and have continued to be in touch with him and seek guidance from him – both personally as well as professionally. He was also an influence in me deciding to study sports nutrition/dietetics.
Other influences have come from non sporting backgrounds and more from the direction of health. My own viewpoint on sports nutrition has been a mix of academic learning and knowledge, experience as well as a refusal to take things at face value – in other words I always question everything and try and seek out more info to try and form my own opinion.
Good Fuel Co: Athletes place great demand on their bodies, physically and mentally. What do you think are some of the biggest barriers to healthy eating in athletes?
Pip Taylor: Athletes generally work really hard. They pay attention to coaching, technique, spend money on the latest technology….. but sometimes the basics are overlooked. And good nutrition to support general good health has to be one of the most important pieces to have in place even before you start training. Without health there is no point worrying about recovery nutrition or what is going to be the best pre-race meal.
For some I do think there is just a lack of awareness over this generally. Some grow up not learning how to cook from scratch or seeing where food really comes from and I think this disconnect makes healthy eating not only difficult but the importance of it can be lost and food becomes more about sustenance and meeting hunger needs. Time is another factor that is used as a reason by not just athletes but many people as to why they cant eat better. I think though this just stems from a lack of some basic skills in the kitchen and knowing how to quickly and easily prepare fresh healthy foods. The question of time can also be answered easily by the conveniences of modern shopping – make use of delivery services!! Perhaps the biggest barrier to anyone eating well is the shopping and having a stocked fridge and pantry!
Another mistake that I think we can all be guilty of and perhaps particularly when it comes to nutrition (after all everyone has an opinion there!) is that we tend to listen to too many people. And whether there is any justification or evidence behind what we are being told. There are just so many mixed messages out there are often we hear what we want to hear or find a message that appeals to us and it just might not be the best thing nutritionally for either health or performance.
Athletes are pretty well versed in sports nutrition needs – how much protein and carbs they need and when based on the training or race schedule, but amongst these numbers sometimes enjoyment as well as just healthy whole foods can be lost. Many commercial sports foods might meet recovery needs or be a convenience for fuelling up or for mid race support, but there are always going to be nutritional gaps if sports foods are used too heavily to meet energy needs.
Good Fuel Co: Tell us a bit about your own food journey. How have you personally seen what you eat influence your race day performance, ability to handle training loads and your general health?
Pip Taylor: I have always eaten well. My mum is a fantastic cook as well as a doctor so I think I always had a sense of the importance of diet for both health as well as performance. I have never been a ‘junk food’ eater, never had packaged foods or bars in my lunchbox at school and never ate at fast food outlets. But over the last few years I have really changed my outlook on food and health – prompted in part by my interest in the science and refusal to take accepted nutritional dogma as being ‘correct’, or the only way.
I also had a nagging feeling for years that some of the more traditional messages, especially in the sports nutrition world in regards to fuelling up and the types of food often recommended to athletes, wasn’t actually the best advice and didn’t constitute the best foods for long term general health. Coupled with this I personally started to become more and more aware of some symptoms I was suffering from that interfered with ability to train and perform. So I started digging, researching, learning and discovering – beyond what I had been taught or had grown up accepting as ‘fact’.
And I haven’t stopped since – aspects of what I believe in and how I approach food are continually refined based on emerging new research and also my own experimentation. And I really believe it is playing dividends in how I feel – not just for training or racing but in general – and as a mother to two young kids that is more of a test than training loads! You always have to be there and on your game!
Good Fuel Co: Athletes tend to see food as sustenance and a means to an end. What role does enjoyment play in the long-term for nutrition..or, well anything?
Pip Taylor: We all eat and do so multiple times a day. If you don’t enjoy what you are eating that is a pretty miserable punishment to have to endure every day for the rest of your life! Enjoyment and fun in food is key but I think where some people get caught up, and particularly when they are in the midst of trying to overhaul their diet is that they view not eating or trying to minimise eating some foods as deprivation. They have become so reliant on certain foods that they have forgotten the joy of simple whole real foods and how good they can and do taste.
Athletes too are guilty sometimes of being driven by numbers - needing so much protein for recovery or this many carbs for fuelling up – and that is great, those numbers can be important, but you also need to really enjoy the foods that make up those numbers. And just as importantly those foods should contribute to you feeling great through nourishing and adding to health.
Good Fuel Co: Family is hugely important to you and it's been encouraging to see you put them first. What would you say to athletes struggling to balance training and time with family?
Pip Taylor: I have just had my second child and while I really loved being pregnant and also spending as much time as possible with my kids, especially in those early months – I do find it difficult at times not having that ability to plan and structure training. I get a lot of confidence and identity I think from feeling fit and strong and I also still have athletic goals professionally that I want to tick off. So for me it means juggling training around the need of my kids – I try to do as much as I can when they are sleeping – early mornings and the rare day time naps. Weekends too when my husband gets to spend more time with them I sneak in more training (so a supportive husband or partner is also essential!).
I have also learnt that my training can be so much more efficient than in the past. I really have to try and whittle the hours down to the bare minimum and maximise the gains by training smart. And because you don’t have the luxury of recovery time you cant afford to add in extra training anyway because the fatigue of training plus kids (and ones that wake up at night) plus work is greater than full time training ever was – even in my toughest weeks!
But at the end of the day I get so much more joy from watching my daughter ride her bike (or my newborn son start to roll over) than I get from riding my own so if I am needed by one or the other then training is easily pushed back or rescheduled. In years to come I won’t regret missing a training session but I will regret missing something important with my family.
Good Fuel Co: Your parents have encouraged you in your sporting goals from a young age and both still both train and compete themselves. What sporting heritage do you hope to pass onto your own children?
Pip Taylor: My parents are crazy fit. They just went on holiday and walked across England. They are also both World Champs, Aussie Champs, State Champs plus have won just about everything else in their category for Masters Rowing. So I guess I do have good athletic genes there. But I think what they gave me which was even more invaluable was opportunity and encouragement. And that is what I hope to pass on to my kids - just a love of getting out there, in whatever sports they choose and loving the feeling on being fit and healthy.
I see it already in my 2 year old – she loves to run everywhere just for fun. She rides her bike always trying to go faster and asks everyday whether its swimming day or kinder gym; she copies the stretches and exercises I do at home. I honestly don’t care what sport she does or how good she is at it just as long as she gets out there, enjoys it and goes hard! I hope that I am setting a good example too for my kids in getting out there – they see me go running or to the gym or swimming and for them that is completely normal – and that is what I hope to instill in them – that being active and fit is just a part of everyday life and that it is fun.