As Part II in The Work Behind the Body series, the Worker's Wo/Manual offers interviews with health and fitness professionals. Though most of the questions will relate to athletes of all genders, there will also be questions specific to the female body. The hope is to empower women and men through knowledge as they pursue their best selves in sport and life.
First up is Chelsea Murn of From the Mountains Wellness. I first met Chelsea while bouldering in Bishop, California. I thought, dang this woman's strong. And then, as we bumped into each other more and more throughout the years, from SLC to Bozeman, I came to realize this strength came from a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of energy and passion. I've since watched her career as a health coach take off alongside her climbing achievements.
Chelsea's walking the talk, so I reached out to her as the first interviewee in the Worker's Wo/Manual. Below, Chelsea share her thoughts on what dietary choices best support athletic performance. Eat it up, friends! There's much to learn and apply in the food for thought below.
Meet Chelsea Murn
Health coach with From the Mountains Wellness
Kelsey: What is your occupation and why do you do it?
Chelsea: I work as a holistic health and wellness coach to bring people closer to their goals both nutritionally and emotionally. I am the face behind my business - From the Mountains Wellness where I see clients both in person and remotely. I also run a blog where I share recipes, nutrition wisdom and products I enjoy using.
I am also lucky that I am able to utilize my passion for climbing by working at an outdoor retail shop here in Spokane.
I choose to work in the health and wellness industry to work to bridge the gap between conventional health care and the need for individualized total-body wellness. I believe there is a large connection between emotional health and physical well-being.
K; What sports do you enjoy?
C: My true passion is rock climbing. I got hooked my freshman year of college after visiting the local rock wall and haven’t turned back since. Eight years later I try to get outside as often as I can. Though I typically prefer bouldering I have been sport climbing more often lately and have been loving it.
Another passion of mine over the last few years has been trail running. I absolutely love being able to be in nature while gaining some altitude on the trails. Besides, who doesn’t love sprinting down a hill as fast as you can?!
K: How have your sports shaped your relationship to your career?
I would say that my entire career can be dedicated to my relationship with sports. I am constantly inspired by the ability of the human body to push boundaries and limits in the world of sports. Climbing has become a driving force in my life and the search for optimal wellness.
Shortly after discovering climbing I wondered how I could learn to climb better and stronger. It was during this time I started to experiment with my own diet—the first key piece to my step towards holistic nutrition—to see what fueled my body best for climbing.
This process took time, and is ever changing and evolving - to this day I am still experimenting with different foods, macronutrient ratios and supplements. After a few years of solely focusing on the diet, (used here to describe a way of eating and lifestyle not a form of restriction), and food aspect of wellness I started to take a look at my mindset related to the relationship I had with food and happiness levels.
I realized that in order to climb stronger I needed to have balance in my life. Work, school, play and mental state all come into play. While it is natural to focus more on one aspect at times, I believe true balance is achieved when we place our focus inward and work on areas that need more attention. For me, this meant obsessing less about every bite that goes into my body and instead focusing on what I know makes me feel best.
K: What is your food philosophy as an athlete?
My food philosophy as an athlete is to nourish and fuel the body with real, whole and nutrient dense foods. The more nutrient dense, the better!
After experimenting with just about every diet under the sun, (vegetarian, vegan, keto, low-carb, gluten-free, Paleo, Whole30, IIFYM and others), I settled on a lifestyle diet that felt the most sustainable long-term. For me this is a mixture of the Paleo diet with the addition of some gluten-free grains like white rice and legumes like peanut butter. The paleo diet focuses on well-sourced animal proteins, good quality fats and plenty of vegetables.
I am thankful to my years of experimenting with food and realizing what foods make me feel my best. Gluten, dairy and soy happen to cause an enormous amount of distress and inflammation in my body along with heightened levels of anxiety and brain fog.
My general philosophy is to fill my plate with meat, non-starchy veggies and starchy veggies. I don’t worry much about the ratios of protein, fat and carbohydrates but I do make certain to eat and include carbohydrates in the form of sweet potatoes or rice to fuel and refuel my workouts.
The biggest point I would love to share is the over-arching theme of bio-individuality. This means that each and every person has a way of eating that will feel best for them. No two people are the same, so fuel for each body will look different. Or in other terms - one man’s medicine might be another man’s poison and vice versa.
Elimination diets can be an amazing tool to finding bio-individuality and the foods that work best for your body and health goals. By focusing on whole and nutrient dense foods for a set length of time while cutting out possible inflammatory foods, it is possible to reintroduce certain foods back into the diet to see if there is a possible negative reaction. But take care that these should always be done under the supervision of a health care practitioner or coach.
K: What are some of the bigger misconceptions about food and athletic performance?
I am really glad you asked this question! Traditional and conventional advice surrounding sports nutrition can be a confusing topic. As a relatively new field of research (mid 1980s), sports nutrition surrounding athletic performance has fallen victim to the lure of big corporations and revenue-driven marketing.
I believe this field has wide margins for expansion in terms of scientific research and I am happy to play a role in working with athletes to break down conventional wisdom in order to reach individual goals. Instead of focusing on the minutia and details of every last calorie and food consumed, I like to take a bird’s eye view and focus on aspects in relation to overall wellness. These include taking a look at mindset, habits and an overall sense of self-worth.
I will say one of my favorite misconceptions that I like to try and break down is the myth of “calories in = calories out.” This idea is out-dated and can create a vicious cycle of under-eating and over-exercising to “burn off excess calories.” In my mind, this creates a negative connotation and possible fear surrounding food and eating to satiety.
Society and conventional wisdom tells us that if we want to be thinner or leaner that we must burn more calories than we consume. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture, the governing body that gives specific recommendations and guidelines on nutrition for the American population) recommends women have an caloric intake of 1,600 - 2,400 calories a day to maintain weight, while men are recommended to consume 2,000 - 3,000 calories a day to maintain weight.
The first thing I would like to point out about this recommendation is the large difference between the low and high range of calories needed in a day. For women, this is an 800 calorie a day difference and for men it is as 1,000 calorie a day difference. This calls to attention again about bio-individuality and the truly different and unique aspects of every individual body. Each body will need a different amount of calories on a given day. The recommended calorie intake guidelines are calculated without adding in different activity and stress levels, which will increase the need for caloric intake.
“Calories in” refers to anything we eat. “Calories out” is where the equation gets a little complicated. Several components can cause an expenditure of energy—including resting energy expenditure, or the energy used to perform everyday bodily functions. Digestion also causes caloric expenditure to digest food and process nutrients. And lastly, active energy expenditure; this is the energy we use for movement in both deliberate ways like climbing, weight lifting and running, and spontaneous ways like fidgeting and twitching.
These variables create a much more in-depth look into how our bodies use calories as a form of energy. What I believe matters more than how many calories we consume, is the TYPE of calories we consume. Whole, nutrient dense foods take more energy to process than processed foods do. Meaning our bodies “burn” more calories digesting whole foods than it would a processed, refined product.
An incredibly insightful read on the topic is a book by Gary Taubes. Good Calories, Bad Calories describes in detail the process through which processed and refined foods essentially destroy our ability to burn and expend calories efficiently. This creates insulin sensitivity which creates a signal in our bodies to essentially “hold on to” and encourage fat storage.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is SO MUCH more to weight gain and loss than the amount of calories eaten in a day. I encourage eating whole, natural foods that nourish your body and give you the nutrients you need to flourish and thrive each day.
K: What nutritional advice would you give to women athletes in particular?
Today’s world is largely influenced by social media and marketing tactics - largely aimed at women to create feelings of inferiority and to seek constant improvements (often times no matter what the sacrifice) in the areas of health, fitness and beauty. While each of these goals are justifiable, there is little space today for recognition of the individual journeys we are all on. That is to say - each of us is already “enough” in terms of fitness level, body shape and size.
Instead of thinking of fitness or body goals as an “end destination” I would like to encourage you to take some time to appreciate the journey and where you are along the way. Bodies are so incredibly capable and do so much for us each day. Have confidence in the direction you are moving, and trust that you are listening to what your body is telling you.
This could mean that one day your body tells you it needs more carbohydrates and honoring that throughout the day. If a rest day is necessary, take one rather than pushing through a workout. To me, this is the highest form of self-love. Creating habits that honor your body and what it is telling you instead of comparing your life to others.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of inspiration vs. aspiration. This is particularly important in determining where motivation is coming from. Inspiration can create a spark in others that motivate positive change where aspiration creates feelings of inadequacy and comparison. Aspiration only invites “copy cat” or imitation behavior without taking the individual’s needs into account.
I would invite you to take a look at who you surround yourself with and especially any social media accounts that might make you feel like you need to “aspire to something.” Instead, use the idea of inspiration to take what others might be doing, experiment for yourself and then decide if it is truly beneficial for you or not.
K: What does beautiful mean to you?
Beauty, to me, is an ever-evolving journey. Rather than an end destination, beauty is the lens through which transformation occurs. Truly taking time to appreciate and recognize your effort and progress creates beauty within.
For me, beauty describes a feeling rather than a distinct physical aspect. In order to feel beautiful I must feel at peace with my relationship with my body, with food and with other humans in my life. As long as I am working on improving these certain aspects in my life I believe beauty can shine through and create self-confidence and a feeling of beauty.
K: How have your sports and career shaped your body image and your relationship to your body in general?
I would like to thank climbing for being a driving force in my life-long journey to fitness and improved body image.
Before I started climbing I certainly had body image issues along with a history of disordered eating. Through my desire to climb better and stronger I started to unravel the reasons behind the thought patterns that lead me to disordered eating. I became nutrition-obsessed and began experimenting with different diets in order to fuel my athletic performance. I was able to use these experiences to start to come to peace with my body and the journey I was on.
It took me quite some time to learn to appreciate my body for what it is capable of. There are still times where I struggle with thinking my body doesn’t match what I feel it “should look like” for all the physical activity I do. It’s easy to get caught in the comparison trap and forget all the hard work its taken to get to the present moment.
I usually try to use these moments as a teaching lesson as well, a reminder that the body, in whatever stage it is in, is where it is meant to be. Whether that is a stage of inflammation calling to you for a lifestyle change or a time of healing where your body is thanking you for fueling it properly.
Overall, climbing has been a catalyst for change in many areas of my life and I am happy that I have an improved relationship with my body to show for it. Regardless of the grade I climb, I have come a long way in a journey towards self-love and acceptance.
In my career I hope to be able to inspire positivity and personal growth. I would love to be able to help others (especially women) work towards a more fulfilling life.
K: What advice would you give women and/or fellow athletes in general to better enjoy their unique bodies?
C: The advice I would like to leave athletes is to embrace your bio-individuality. Experiment, try everything and embrace what works for you! Leave behind the products, habits and relationships that don’t serve you.
Food and nutrition aren’t everything, but they are a large piece to the puzzle! Find a practitioner or health coach that you trust to work with and try to get down to the root cause of any health issues that might stand in your way to total wellness. Also, be your own advocate, nobody knows your body better than you! Gut feelings are a real signal to either proceed or caution against something. Get to know your body so you can listen to these signals.
Thank you, Chelsea, for being the first in the Worker's Wo/Manual series and for sharing your wisdom.