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March 17, 2011 | Triathlon Training Blog

From Couch Potato to a 70.3 Tri Race Finish in 12 Months—And Still the Biggest Loser

At age 40, Jonathan Whitman is in the best shape of his life. Adapting to the rigors of a triathlon lifestyle while juggling family and work certainly has its trying moments, but it likely saved his life.

Seventeen years ago, Whitman’s health was heading down a treacherous path: Being 5’10” tall and weighing 230 pounds, he was used to a sedentary lifestyle and practically inhaled fast foods and sodas.


At age 23, his doctor informed Whitman during a regular physical check-up, that his blood pressure was dangerously high and that he needed to take blood pressure medication to avoid further complications.

When Whitman refused, the doctor said his blood pressure could return to normal, if he started losing weight by exercising regularly and eating right and asked him to come back in six to 12 months.

From the Couch to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon

Still reeling from the news, Whitman told a friend, a serious runner, about his health problems.

The friend persuaded Whitman to join a running program, which trained people of all fitness levels for the upcoming San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon. Meanwhile, Whitman also enrolled at UCSD's Wellness Program, which teaches faculty and staff about the importance of fitness and healthy eating.

There he learned what foods to eat and what foods to avoid, how to read food labels, how to balance caloric intake with daily activity expenditure, all about portion sizes, and became familiar with online resources for healthy living. He also performed fitness assessments, which all showed poor results.

Keeping a Food Log

At the time, Whitman also started keeping a food log diary. This requires a daily account of all foods consumed and keeping track of calories. His new diet consisted of chicken, fish, fresh vegetables and fruits in place of Big Macs, pizza and fries for lunch and dinner; oatmeal and fruit instead of two egg and sausage McMuffins for breakfast; and low-fat yogurt or a piece of fruit instead of chips and M&Ms for snacks. For the first time in his life, he started paying attention to hunger cues and what he ate and when instead of eating “mindlessly” as the experts call it.

And so his physical transformation began—slowly, but surely.

He can still recall crossing the finish line of his first marathon (a 26.2-mile distance). It took him 5 hours and he couldn’t have been more ecstatic. By then, he had dropped so much weight that he could actually see muscle tone in his arms, belly and legs.

After breaking down the walls of unhealthy behaviors and seeing the results, Whitman was determined to commit to his new lifestyle of regular exercise and healthier eating.

When a hamstring injury derailed him from running, he turned to his wellness coordinator at UCSD for other ways to stay active. She recommended joining the UCSD master’s triathlon program for adults. As a UCSD staff member, training there only made sense, but Whitman thought he’d never fit in.  

The coordinator assured him that the program accommodated people of all sizes, ages and fitness levels, but he didn’t buy it. She made him a deal: She would go to the first track workout with him and if the group welcomed him, he’d stay.

I’m a Triathlete Now

Since then, Whitman has not only become a regular at the group workouts (swim/bike/run), but developed close friendships with triathletes who enjoy training and racing together.

Today, Whitman has participated in multiple short-distance triathlons and even crossed the finish line of a 70.3-mile race (1.2-mile swim; 56-mile bike ride; 13.1-mile run). He’s now among the fastest swimmers at the UCSD master’s swim program and gets faster every year running and biking. Training for long-distance events remains challenging given his high work load and family commitments.

Still, he makes daily exercise and eating mindfully and healthfully a priority. There are no short-cuts to keeping the weight off and staying healthy, he says.

“If I didn’t do this, I know I’d be 300 pounds,” Whitman said. “I work out and if I want to eat out one night, I can do that now. On the days I don’t work out, I cut back on my food intake. I like junk food, so working out allows me to have a few of those things—in moderation.”



Here are his most important lessons learned:

  • Learn about portion sizes: Your daily serving of bread is one slice—you don’t realize it, but you’re already doubling it by making a sandwich.
  • By keeping a food log, you’ll learn how much you actually consume. I use, because it logs everything: It automatically calculates calories and even has a database of store-bought foods, such as Trader Joe’s sandwiches. And it’s free.
  • My co-worker and I have a competition to lose a certain amount of weight on a certain date and we track each other’s data on We check on each other’s log and keep each other accountable that way.
  • Becoming a triathlete helped me burn some serious calories: I burned 1,042 calories swimming for 75 minutes (fast, vigorous, freestyle swimming). My co-worker burned 206 calories with a 30-minute Wii Fit run workout. I burned 1,304 calories running for 75 minutes. My co-worker burned 106 calories walking her dog for 25 minutes.
  • I drink a liter of water and eat a Clif bar first thing in the morning before my workout
  • After my workout, I eat a banana or something else that’s healthy
  • I do my eating in conjunction with my training: If I train more, I can eat more. If I train less, I will eat less and cut out fattening snacks and foods.
  • Unlike in the past, I am now totally aware and mindful of what I eat.
  • I like Pretzels as a snack, but I’ll only have 5, not the entire bag. Everything in moderation.
  • I wouldn’t get up to exercise at 6 a.m., if I didn’t look forward to seeing my friends at the group workouts and my coaches.
  • If I sign up for a race, I’m much more motivated to drop some pounds and not skip workouts.
  • When I go in for my annual physical check-up, I may not always be at my “ideal body weight,” but I’m not worried, because the doctor never seems concerned. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the level of exercise I do.
  • Healthy weight loss equals 1-2 pounds a week
  • I wouldn’t recommend jumping from the sprint triathlon distance to training for a half Ironman within six months, if you haven’t exercised regularly before.
  • It took me eight years to buy a fancy triathlon bike.
  • If can do this, anyone can.

If you are a triathlete who has lost more than 30 pounds of weight and made a true lifestyle change, I want to hear your story! Email me at

By Marion Webb
Marion Webb

Marion Webb is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. Webb has worked as a longtime award-winning business journalist, covering fitness, small business, health care and biotech issues. A competitive age-group triathlete and two-time ITU Long Distance World Championship qualifier, Webb competes mostly in the Half Ironman (70.3 miles) and (140.6 miles) Ironman distances.

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