Ryan Steiner Runs Free
Ryan Steiner shares his inspiring life story as a Neurodiverse runner.
-First off, how much weight have you lost on this journey?
At my highest weight I was 714 pounds, which has me at a current total loss of 504 pounds. This number does still fluctuate regularly as my journey to health and running is always continuing. As proud as I am of that, having been here for every pound lost or gained, I almost find it unbelievable. To me I still mostly look the same even though I feel like a completely different person. The weight loss is so significant to so many people, but to me it is just a side effect of doing the thing that literally saved my life… endurance running.
-You were on tons of meds for your Autism, do you believe this also impacted your weight gain AND your feelings surrounding food?
Nearly all the medications I was on had a side effect of weight gain. Because of the weight gain I developed very poor relationships with food. Doctors and staff would try to minimize the weight gain with diets before I was even a teen. This created bingeing behaviors and sensory seeking with food. Once I was an adult, I was kind of left to my own as far as services to help me succeed at life. So, I ate food to cope with the hurricane of confusion whirling around inside of me. I ate food the way I now run miles, with a hunger that doesn’t satisfy easily.
-What inspires you to get out and run?
Everything! Nature, the way my body and mind feel clear and free after a run in the woods, the community and the sense of belonging that gets greater the more I run. But mostly Kala. I prefer the man I am when I run, running makes me a better dad, a calmer, quieter dad who can listen even when there are no words.
-What is your training schedule?
I typically workout 6 days a week with 1 passive recovery day and 2 active recovery days each week. 3 calisthenics workouts each week and 5 runs with speed workouts and long runs depending on what I’m working towards. I am also trying to work in more power hiking to my regular training as I’m dreaming of bigger and longer distances. I struggle to do the slower workouts like yoga and stretching, I am the typical long-distance runner who just wants to run all the time. I like to consume running science and tweak my training to get optimal performance. I track my running data across several platforms and try to work on areas of weakness. I make my specific plans for each week on an index card Sunday evening. This card tells me what speed workouts to do and the goal mileage for the week. Sometimes, depending on my emotional state, I need to switch up what kind of run I will do. The card is a quick reference for me to pick what is best for the moment and time I have for a workout. In my head I imagine my body like a car and my brain the mechanic tweaking and adjusting things until the hoopty that my body once was becomes the high performance machine of my dreams.
I also follow a daily sensory diet for my autism. Which is about 15 minutes of proprioceptive exercises meant to help me with executive functioning issues and helping my head control my body movements. I have a lot of uncontrolled motor movements and vocalizing like tics that this sensory diet helps me better control (running also helps with these parts of me too!). I never considered this part of my training but recently I realized that these physical activities that I do for my brain are definitely helping my training. All of this schedule is also contingent on me being on routine in everything else I have going on as Kala’s stay at home parent. We both thrive on a daily routine and things like doctors appointments, or therapists canceling on us, can impact both of our abilities to complete tasks that might have relied on the flow of the normal day to be completed. I try to build in and train for flexibility in my routine, especially with running miles, but doing the exact same thing at the same time of day each day is very comforting for me and leads to better overall success of a training block.
-Does neurodiversity affect your training? If so, how?
Being autistic definitely impacts my training. It impacts absolutely everything for me and for Kala, which also impacts my training. I rely heavily on routine to remind me what needs to be done. I have a really good long term memory, but my short term memory and executive functions are very limited resources in my brain. So, making my day into something like a dance routine allows my body to remember what my brain cannot. Little changes in that dance throw off my rhythm and I struggle. We do as a family prioritize my running because of how much it impacts the person I have become. Even when things are falling apart; as a family we work to get me out the door for a run.
The other side of the memory part is that I also have amazing motor and muscle memory. My body craves movement to even power thoughts. This motor and muscle memory allows me to quickly adapt the gate and cadence of my stride, and remember exact positions of running “gears” in my body…repetitive movements are the best fuel for holding onto thoughts, which makes running so much more than a happy place. For me, running has become such a natural part of my day that if I don’t get to run when I am supposed to, even just one time, it upsets the balance of not just my training, but also my whole life. Even things that seem simple like social media become insurmountable. Once there is a small upset, then I enter conservation mode and I work really hard to get back to a brain and body homeostasis. Sometimes I burn out before I get that chaos leveled back out and I can’t get off the floor or talk to other people for days. The older I get the better I get at knowing when I have pushed myself too far. I’ve learned to pace myself. Even when I can’t get off the floor, sometimes a run will bring me back around.
Because of this need for repetition, I train for a race as part of my routine. In my head I prepare for conversations that might happen on race day. I practice remembering to smile so that people know I am having a good time, I practice what I will eat, even what I will eat as I travel to the race. I also prepare for the days after the race where I need to go easy on myself mentally and physically to get back to my routine. I have to slowly work back up to accomplishing things at full daily routine. Even tracking my water intake needs to be closely brought back up to normal amounts of water. Slowly transitioning to the next training block for the next race. This process helps me grow and feel like I am the best me possible, though it might seem hard when I break it down, I am truly thriving which helps Kala thrive as well.
-Touching on your gear. Have you found certain gear that works better for you? What kind and how?
Gear is life for me. I know you specifically mean running/adventure gear, but for me I need tools and trinkets to survive a trip to the Dollar General. For me, a trip to the mall for new pants can be as physically and emotionally demanding as running an ultra. Throughout my life I have curated a special collection of things or “gear” to tackle whatever journey I find myself on. I carry what I refer to as my emotional support backpack, which has things like ear protection, communication tools, and other things that help me regulate my body’s needs. I have a very real emotional bond with the items in my bag. When I started running it became a game for me to find the gear and trinkets I needed to make it through a long race. I have a collection of bags, running vests and running belts… a means to carry the things I might need on a run if I start to struggle. With my extra skin, it has been hard to find things that don’t bounce and cause chaffing. Tags and things that pinch or poke quickly get put on a shelf. I’ve never cared as much about brand as I do comfort… but, as someone who is very into social justice and the beauty of humanity, if a brand has both comfort and shows kindness, even when no one is looking, I am hooked. I also struggle with hydration in all life, not just running. Drinking water, enough water especially, is difficult without the right vessel. The amount of bottles, cups, flasks and even bowls to drink from in my collection are often a source of frustration for my wife. It helps a lot when my current favorite vessel is one that can also be used on a run. It helps me integrate hydration race strategies into my everyday routine. I often wear my running vest around the house while taking care of Kala. I recently switched to the Naked Running High Capacity vest. Because I formed such a quick emotional bond with the ideas and people I saw when exploring their company website, it was its own epic adventure to use their gear and find that it was as good as the people behind it. Today I am Naked head to toe! The third time I wore this new vest I realized, as I was doing my final gear check before walking out the door, that the feel of the Naked vest around my chest had tempered my anxiety, which is always high when walking out of my house. Immediately, images of Temple Grandon and her squeeze box came into my mind. People with autism are often calmed by firm pressure around the torso, like a hug without the additional person, which is good for me because I do not love to be touched, sometimes though… I still need a hug.
-Diet is extremely important for us all in our performance and how we feel. I know especially with neurodiverse folks, who are incredibly sensitive, it effects them even more. Can you share what transformations you have made in your diet that have helped you the most in your training and in your life?
I have coped with and overcome many things in life to get to today. Most of those things are just memories, significant ones that definitely have shaped the person that I am today, but they do not control me. Food though, is still a daily struggle. I am addicted to food. Actually admitting that out loud and to myself is a very recent part of my weight loss and fitness journey. I have learned so much about food and diet, I have tried nearly every extreme weight loss tool available and still my full body and emotional addiction to the comfort of food is always lurking. My pursuit of a healthier, happier, more active and food conscious person has been long, maybe 17 years, and much like a rollercoaster that I cannot get off. I have been plant based for the last 4 years and have slowly removed things that might cause problems in the body. Removing foods that might cause inflammation, trying diets that people in the autism community swear by, and then keeping the things that work for me. Six months ago when I realized the depth of my addiction to food, I started removing things that science says our body reacts to in an addictive way. I have followed a whole food plant based vegan diet since that day and it has nearly removed my all desires to eat easy foods. I say “easy foods” because I am working on changing my self-talk surrounding food. I heard a quote that has become my mantra; ‘Self discipline is the ultimate form of self-love.’ I say this to myself when I feel like I am struggling. I don’t deny myself amazing food. I do follow a very strict set of foods that I just don’t eat anymore. I made it an ethical decision, which increased my emotional buy in. I eat dessert. I eat bread. But I avoid processed foods, processed sugars, bleached flours, added oil, and anything with animal products. This new approach has changed my experience with food. I am cooking increasingly AMAZING vegan meals, all starting with the plant form of each ingredient, any processing of which happens right here in my kitchen. I’m not saying it is easy… at all! But it is so worth it for my body and mental progress lately. For me, running is a complete lifestyle journey. Learning to hydrate, eat foods for fuel, stretch and soak in a bath of epsom salt are all forms of self-love that I overlooked for so many years. Finding a way to cook food and still use it for comfort has been such a beautiful part of this epic adventure. I want to share how amazing the food is. How beautiful the plate looks. The amazing vegan cheeses!!!! Everything I loved about food and the comfort it gave me, even for all those years it was killing me, has become an ultimate form of love for myself and for humanity as I really stretch my whole food vegan cooking to new heights.
-I love the quote you gave “I can share solitude with other runners.” Can you explain this further?
Parallel play and autism often go hand in hand. Doing my own thing right next to other people doing their own thing. We’re all moving towards the same end. We’re all occupying the same space yet separate journeys. Some people talk. Some like it quiet. Some you can hear their headphones a half mile away (that is me). To me it just seems natural to be alone. I prefer to be in my own head… but then parts of me feel this need to connect with the world and the people in it. Running allows me to connect with other people in a context that makes things about me that would normally be weird or obsessive (like my obsession with collecting running gear and bottles) seem natural… maybe even cool.
-Describe how running helps both you and Kala with your brain connections? And behaviors due to neurodiversity?
Running is kind of like a mental and physical alignment. The sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of my environment wear down on my ability to think and then follow through on a thought. A lot of times my body will feel anxious or sick, but my head knows there is not a reason, at least not a cognitive one, so it must be something in my sensory environment that is interrupting my ability to communicate with my body. When this happens, sometimes I can’t quit crying or even find or form words.
-How do you want your voice thru running to grow? What dreams do you have for the future?
When I decide I wanted to try and use running as a way to have a voice or platform for education, I knew I wanted to focus on visibility and inclusion. There has been a recent switch to autism acceptance over autism awareness, but I feel strongly that the world still just isn’t aware. The diversity of autism is vast and there are many voices not heard because some are able to shout so much louder than others. I want to use this attention to be as authentic as possible about my own experience as an autistic person and parent of an autistic kiddo, and to advocate, educate and elevate other autistic and disabled experiences. My big dreams right now are to some day both run a 100 mile race with Kala, right now she’s only ready for 50k at a time, and to make a cross country trek with her as well. The trail that kala and I run on for nearly all our training is part of the Great American Rail-Trail, and I often daydream about running from our house all the way to Washington. I daydream about running the trail and connecting with all the autistic runners (and others) I have met on social media. Running with them and learning their stories. Sharing their stories. It seems epic, no matter how long it takes! Until then, I want to run as many races as I can! Any distance!