It’s no secret that many endurance sports create an environment where we believe ‘the leaner we are the better we can be’ – and this is not just female athletes but males too!
For a while it’s been something I have wanted to write about, and to share my story. But, if I’m being honest, I’ve been scared to put myself out there.
I’ve been racing as a professional triathlete for three years, and it was only this year when I started to make it to the pointy end of the fields that I felt a crushing pressure to be leaner, if I was lighter I would keep up with the top girls.
This feeling didn’t come from my coaches or those around me, it is just something that seemed to be engrained in endurance sport.
I have always had a healthy appetite, even before I became an athlete. I have been on the receiving end of comments like ‘you eat a lot for a girl’. Before I was in high performance sport I never cared about these comments, in fact I was proud of the fact that I was always willing to eat pretty much anything.
Now as an athlete, I have become extremely aware that I am considered one of the ‘bigger athletes’ on the start line. Being a professional athlete people feel they can comment on what I eat and what I look like; ‘You don’t look like a triathlete,’; ‘Aren’t you an elite athlete? Why are you eating that?’ or one of the worst ‘Do you really need those carbs?’
Before this year all these comments would have been like water off a ducks back, but things changed.
At the beginning of this year I completely reinvented my training program and my approach to racing. One of the changes was being more aware of what I was eating, essentially cutting out as much processed food as possible and eating a lot of vegetables. Initially to do this I saw a dietician and together we came up with a plan which would allow me to lose a little
weight but also fuel my body. It worked; I lost some weight and raced really well in my first race of the season finishing second.
You know what I did next? You guessed it, I thought if I could become a little leaner maybe I could win my next race so I started obsessing over my calorie intake. This was the beginning of a bit of a spiral. I started skipping meals or snacks and reducing my carb intake. And as a result I got leaner. Soon after this I had had two of my best ever performances at international races.
I got home to Australia really excited to see what I could do at World Championships in
Spain in three weeks’ time, but I was paranoid about putting weight back on. I wasn’t training as much as I was in season, so I ate even less. I weighed myself every few days to make sure I was on track, I couldn’t stop it; it was like a compulsion.
The worst part is I was proud of the fact that I had so much control over my food intake.
People kept telling me I looked fit and I was performing well, so why stop?
3 weeks later at World Champs I had one of the worst performances of my career. I felt awful, I was weak, and my race was over before I even got out of the swim. I was devastated and returned to Australia shattered with my performance. I reviewed the possible reasons why my race did not go to plan and the one that couldn’t be ignored was my obsession with controlling my calorie intake.
I tried to be more sensible, but if I am being honest it has been a constant battle this whole year trying not to fall back into that hole and monitor every single calorie I am putting into my mouth. I’ve had times where I’ve lapsed into those habits again and spent a few weeks reducing calorie intake and weighing myself a lot.
It’s so crazy to think that the number on a scales can either make you euphoric or devastated, but that’s what it was like. If I was happy with my weight I was elated and if I wasn’t I was devastated and thought that this would make me perform terribly.
It got to a point where I realised I was spiralling again. I am extremely lucky to have people around me who noticed this and encouraged me to talk about it. They were able to help me think through things logically and look at the science (which I know as I have a degree in it!).
I made the decision to stop weighing myself, which I’m embarrassed to admit was far harder than I thought, but I stopped and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
In an essence I got my shit together. I talked to a sports psychologist, my friends and family, which helped me a lot. I still eat a clean diet, but I eat when I’m hungry instead of ignoring it. And I actually eat cake when I feel like it! However, this is a long process and I still have those habits within me that I have to ignore and that little voice telling me that I shouldn’t eat the chocolate or have a beer because I’ll get fat. I mostly ignore that voice now, but some days it’s still hard.
A lot of people won’t have realised that I’ve gone through this complete 360 this year and I’m still scared to talk about my experiences.
This is something that’s bigger than me. The culture of being too ‘big’ for endurance sport can only be stopped if people talk about their experiences and help others realise they are not alone.
Please talk to someone if you feel any of these things I’ve talked about.
I hope we can create a culture in which young athletes feel nurtured and excited about their sport no matter their background or body type./
Let’s change endurance sport: Stronger is Faster.
And it starts with athletes who are willing to share their stories….