Grad student seeks winning fitness formula
KENNESAW, Ga. (Dec 9, 2020) — Grace Alexander came to Kennesaw State to learn how her body works and to improve its efficiency. The competitive triathlete has proven an apt pupil in the laboratory, in the classroom and on the course.
Alexander, a first-year master’s student in exercise science, won a half-Ironman triathlon in Panama City Beach, Florida, last month, finishing the 1.2-mile swimming portion, the 56-mile bicycling leg and the 13.1-mile run in 4 hours, 33 minutes, 56 seconds. She beat both men and women to the finish line, a feat the Ironman collection of races said had never been accomplished before.
“I had imagined crossing the finish line and breaking the tape for so long, but it didn't hit me right away,” Alexander said. “It was a self-seeded start with people starting at different times so I was nervous that I hadn't actually won. After about 2 minutes they confirmed the win, and that's when it hit me. I recall thinking to myself, ‘Is this real? Are you sure?’ I was smiling for the rest of the day and the whole drive home.”
Growing up in Atlanta, Alexander started swimming competitively at age 6 and added running to the mix at age 10. In eighth grade, she did her first triathlon and stuck with the sport throughout adolescence. She swam at Rollins College in Florida, graduating with school records in the 500-, 1,000- and 1,650-yard freestyles as well as a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies.
Alexander returned to the Atlanta area and took a job as a physical therapy technician at The Shepherd Center in Atlanta. She drifted away from her athletic pursuits to focus on school and work for a few years, but recently resumed her fitness habits. Alexander describes herself as addicted to the sport and happier than when she didn’t exercise.
One of her co-workers at The Shepherd Center was a master’s student in exercise science at KSU and recruited Alexander into a study. From that introduction, Alexander determined that some knowledge of the body’s inner workings might benefit her pursuits in triathlon. Already a frequent event winner, Alexander has clearly improved on the racecourse.
“The research is definitely coming together and helping both my racing and my studies as I progress,” Alexander said. “Studying nutrition and movement have been new to me. We’re currently working on submitting grant proposals using the motion and nutrition data that we’ve obtained from our participants so far. Hopefully we’ll start some studies in the lab next year where we can be a little more hands-on.”
She joined the exercise science laboratory of associate professor Katherine Ingram, whose research focuses on gestational diabetes and the need for exercise among mothers-to-be. Ingram said Alexander’s expertise and discipline gained from a lifetime as an athlete serve her well as a graduate research assistant in the laboratory.
“The determination that Grace shows to her sport is also mirrored by her outstanding work in my lab,” Ingram said. “In this semester alone, she has led a team of undergraduate research students, co-authored two research presentations, and was awarded a student research grant to study the relationship between inflammation and physical activity in young women with obesity. She is truly a champion as both a scholar and an athlete.”
Alexander said she will race professionally in 2021 while studying and working as a GRA in the Ingram lab, expanding her knowledge of her own fitness with a goal of sharing it with others.
“There’s a lot we know but there’s still a lot we don’t know about how the body reacts to components like sleep, nutrition, recovery, technology—it’s overwhelming how much can go into it,” she said. “I’m interested in figuring out how these elements work individually. It’s almost like a 10,000-piece puzzle. There’s so much that goes into training but once you start learning what works for you, it’s very rewarding. From my experience and education, I want to communicate to others just how much training and other lifestyle changes can benefit them—that would be a great goal."
– Dave Shelles
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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.