Sarah Piampiano is a woman on a mission: she wants to inspire people to break bad habits and replace them with good ones. This is an area that the professional athlete has personal experience in, as she committed to her first triathlon over a pack of cigarettes and too many drinks in 2009. Taking a bet that she could beat her friend in the race—untrained—and then winning that bet changed her life forever. She has been traveling the world competing in Ironman races since, and quit her banking job at HSBC in 2012 to become a professional triathlete.

Piampiano launched The Habit Project, a no-fee site that posts weekly challenges and tips in fitness, nutrition, lifestyle, and triathlon, late last year to inspire others out there to make a change in their lives. “I think lots of pro athletes are inspiring,” she shares, “but many people can’t relate to them because they operate on such a different level. But I had this other life before and it makes me more relatable. I want to share my story, share my struggles and what I go through.”

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Finding a balanced lifestyle  is at the heart of the wisdom Piampiano espouses: rest and recovery can be as important as training, occasional treats may be essential to maintaining a healthy diet, and finding time to pause, breathe, and appreciate life is necessary. But at Piampiano’s core is a do-or-die, dedicated athlete unafraid to push herself to the limits. She shares her routine with us below.

Q: You’re an athletic person, but how did you handle that first race?

A: The whole experience scared me, honestly. I’m competitive, but I never thought I’d beat my friend Todd! I was especially intimidated by the swim part of it, so afterward [Tweet “That feeling of overcoming my fears was so rewarding!”]—I felt so proud of myself, so accomplished. It had been a long time since I’d felt that in my life at that point and it’s something I’ve carried with me since then.

Q: At what point did you realize you loved the triathlon and decided to pursue it professionally?

A: The feeling that I had conquered something that made me so anxious, it was just really exhilarating and that’s what made me want to try my hand at it again. The thing about this sport is it’s an intimidating thing to take on and I’m amazing and inspired by the people who are doing it. It speaks volumes about how resilient and headstrong people are and that is just so impressive to me. It motivated me in a new way and brought up my childhood dream of being a professional athlete and it felt like such a calling, like what I was meant to do. Things happened in my life and I did the triathlon and it sort of made me feel like it was meant to happen and what I was meant to be doing.

Q: What is your weekly training schedule like?

A: On average I train about 30-35 hours per week.  That does not include travel time to and from training locations, weekly massage, Physical therapy, my weekly calls with my nutritionist, etc. When it is all said an done it is probably ends up being closer to 45 hours a week of dedicated training time.  Outside of that, I probably spend about 20 hours a week on sponsor related work.

Q: Can you take us through an average day:

4:30 AM – Wake up, eat light breakfast (usually a tablespoon of almond butter, some tea and 2 big glasses of water)

4:45 AM – 5:00 AM – Pre-training warm up on VASA trainer (like a dryland swim trainer)

5:05 AM – Depart for the pool

5:30 AM – 7:15 AM – Swim practice (this is usually anywhere from 5k-6k of swimming)

7:15 AM – Post swim snack (usually a Clif Builder Bar for a great protein, fat and sugar combo)

7:30 AM – 8:45 or 9 AM – Run – either an endurance run or intervals, depending on the day – usually about 8-12 miles of running

9 AM – 10:00 AM – Strength – 3 days a week I do light activation work on my own; 2 days a week I do a coached strength session

10:00 AM – Breakfast (fruit and 2 eggs)

10:15 AM – 11:15 AM – Physical Therapy/Chiropractor

11:30 AM – 1:00 PM – Home/nap/check emails/make lunch (Chicken soup, 1/2 sweet potato, big salad with avocado, tomato, hemp seeds drizzled in grapeseed oil)

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1:00 – Pre-ride snack – Almond butter and a piece of fruit

1:15 PM – 4:15 PM – Ride – anywhere from 40-80 mile ride

4:15 PM – 5:00 PM – Possible run off or done for the day

5:30 PM – Dinner (Fish and salad; frozen fruit for dessert)

6:00 PM – 8:00 PM – Emails and relaxing

8:00 PM – Pre-bed snack (oats, almond butter, a tbsp of jam and applesauce all mixed together. I call it a “mash.”)

8:00 PM – In bed; lights out at 8:30 pm

Q: What’s the basic outline of your nutrition regimen?

A: One thing I have learned—and finally been willing to accept—is that I am an emotional eater. I like to reward a job well done with treats!  And I also have learned that completely restricting myself of the things I love (like wine and ice cream) usually results in a total breakdown and binge eating.

Like any fitness training plan, the diet that works for one person may not be the best for someone else.  Each person’s body reacts differently to different things and then you have to factor in the emotional and mental components as well.  Only then can you come up with an effective plan that works. I’ve been working with a nutritionist for the last three years, and it has been a process. We had to start small and slowly make changes and gains over time.

All things considered I would say I eat a varied and well-balanced diet, but in the ramp up to big races things get more strict.

Generally speaking, I avoid dairy, gluten, and grains.  My main breakfast in the morning consists of a big bowl of fruit and 2 eggs; my lunch is high in protein, lots of vegetables and always has a starch in it (almost always a sweet potato, but sometimes I do have quinoa).  Dinner is always fish and vegetables.  I eat tons of healthy fat foods: avocados, almonds, walnuts, nut butters, ground flax seed, grapeseed oil, coconut oil.  I eat organic almost exclusively, and buy lean meats and wild caught fish.  It makes the grocery bill a bit higher, but for me it is worth it.

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In terms of my eating plan, I eat roughly 10 “meals” a day.  I eat before and immediately after every single workout; I eat a main breakfast, lunch and dinner; I have mid-morning and afternoon snacks and I have a pre-bed snack every night.  The goal is to eat regularly and consistently, providing my body with a constant source of energy.  In total, I would say I consume somewhere around 4,000 calories outside of training, and then another 2,000 calories or so during training.

One night a week I get a “free” meal where I can eat whatever I want.  Usually that involves my boyfriend and I going out to eat.  I love Mexican food, burgers and ice cream, so usually our meals include some or all of those things.

After races, I usually take 1 day when I just have free reign to eat as I please and reward myself for a great job and the hard work I put in.

Having those “off” days and meals that are guilt free makes staying on track the other days so much easier. Mentally I’m able to approach my “cheat” meals in a way where I feel like I am allowed to be eating total crap vs. doing something I am not supposed to be doing and failing.  It is a system that works really well for me!