The following personal story was generously shared with us by Dr Carlene Starck, an athlete and sport and exercise scientist from Massey University. Thanks so much Carlene for sharing your lived experiences with us!
‘You are 17% body fat, that’s perfect for a female athlete.’
The DEXA technician gave me the lengthy report with a smile.
‘Plus, you have very little body fat around your stomach area, which is the most important result. Well done!’
I was stoked. My coach had suggested I get a DEXA scan to measure my body fat percentage as this would help him determine the best training approach that would maximise my power to weight ratio.
I was extremely nervous beforehand. What if my body fat was really high? It was the end of the winter and I was living in Canada at the time, where winters are extremely cold and bitter and you just can’t get out for those long endurance rides that burn a tonne of calories…
PLUS I was an eating disorder junkie… Well, you know…that’s what my ‘safety net’ was. I had developed anorexia after deciding (at age 14 after the pinch test in PE class) that I was ‘too fat’. And I am not sure that an eating disorder is something you ever get away from. Sure, you become more aware of the nasty girl who lives in your head (let’s call her Nasty Nancy) telling you constantly that you are either ‘fat’ or ‘getting fat’ or ‘you COULD get fat if you eat this or do that or DON’T do this’ (and so on) – but I think she is like a cold-sore…. She lies dormant and then when you get a little stressed or the conditions allow it, she pops up and goes SURPRISE!!! Here I am!!!
I am ugly and nasty and you have me FOREVERRRRR……
Anyway, my result was good. I could breathe. Nasty Nancy was quiet.
OK not completely quiet – she did start telling me that whilst 17% was good, I could possibly go down in body fat and that I COULDN’T, under ANY circumstances, go higher.
Still. She wasn’t having a panic attack and so I could relax just a little.
I went back to my coach with the good news. ‘That’s great!’ he said ‘but your weight is up from the end of last season’… (it was 61.3kg compared to 57.7)….’I think you would be best at 57. Plus you COULD drop to 15% body fat safely.’
That was 4 kilos.
‘Don’t worry about losing it, we will plan your training to maximise weight loss. You may have to lose a bit of muscle but you will still be faster.’
Don’t WORRY about losing it? Are you insane?
Nasty Nancy started to wake up….
OK OK I thought. I had spent the winter doing a lot of weights to bump up my strength. I am a mountain biker and we HAVE to be strong. Plus, my legs had a lot of room to develop strong healthy muscle. So my heart was in the right place. I had planned and trained accordingly. It was expected and allowed. The weight I had gained over the winter was most likely muscle.
But still, Nasty Nancy only focused on one thing.
YOU NEED TO LOSE 4kg. And you COULD drop to 15%.
And then she translated this into:
You are fat you should lose weight. You are fat. You are fat. You are FAT and SLOW.
So I trained with a vengeance. One session a day went to two. I raced and I trained and I raced and I trained.
I lost my period and I thought – ‘this is great! I train SO hard that I don’t get my period!’ I became very strict with my diet (well, even stricter – I was already pretty strict given my eating disorder background) and started cutting carbs.
My first couple of races went ok. I performed well. However, as the season progressed, I started to feel tired and lost motivation to race. I started pulling out before the race even began. I became withdrawn and depressed.
AND much to my dismay I started to put on weight. The opposite of what I was supposed to be doing. Which of course made me train harder but go even further backwards.
I am going to jump forwards now, to the present day.
Because I think that FINALLY, after years of battling and trying to figure out how to be lean and fast yet still have energy to race, I know what I am doing.
Because you see, athletes are NOT normal people!!!!
What I mean is – if you are an average everyday recreational sporty spice or maybe you don’t do anything at all – your calories in versus calories out pretty much determines your weight. (In a VERY general sense).
Why should you listen to me?
Well, not only am I a (successful) cross-country mountain bike athlete, I have a PhD in Biochemistry and I am a Research scientist in the School of Sport and Exercise at Massey University, Palmerston North. I have combined both my direct experience and scientific know-how to figure a few things out….
As an athlete, you are putting your body under enormous amounts of stress – you train so much harder and more frequently than the average person in the gym… you reach the peak they THINK they reach, because you know what that feels like from racing and/or competition.
Our bodies respond to high levels of stress differently than to moderate levels of stress. Moderate physical/exercise stress is GOOD for us. It promotes adaptation to exercise and that is how you get fitter. However, when we exceed this optimal level, a multitude of different hormones come into play – cortisol for a start – and this has a range of negative consequences.
So you CANNOT treat yourself like a normal person! You will eat far more, you may need more sleep. You may need more rest days. You will require more fat, more protein and more carbs. You may need more salt. And you will need sugar!! Yes, that evil thing the media tells us gives us cancer.
And so on.
Plus, every athlete will be different. Every athlete has their own unique body which responds to stress (depending on a huge range of different things, including past experiences and psychological stress) in its own individualised way.
So, as a UNIQUE athlete, you CANNOT compare yourself to the athlete down the hall. Or on the start line next to you.
You have to figure out what YOU need. And then you have to give yourself that!! Add to this, the fact that females have a few extra things our bodies have to do…and that these things change throughout the month…. So I’m sad to say that there is not a secret routine you can follow every day that will keep you safe.
The other thing I have learned is that your performance will be BETTER and you will be FASTER when you are getting regular periods, EVEN IF YOUR BODY FAT IS HIGHER. Yes, I said it. Crazy I know. And that’s because (among other reasons) the little hormone estrogen has a KEY role in energy production.
So, listen up. Because this is important. To cut a long story short, the MOST important things you can do as an athlete are:
1. Feed yourself properly. Yes, eat healthy. But healthy means getting enough of everything – carbs (both high and low GI), protein AND fat. As crazy as it sounds, not eating enough will make your body store fat. Eating enough means you can train more effectively. And your body won’t freak out.
2. Rest when you need to. Recognise when you are just a little tired and can push through versus when you are fatigued and need to recover. Plus you should be having AT LEAST one complete rest day per week. This is not laziness, this is part of training! Even when you are resting you are training. Yep.
3. Love yourself. Unconditionally. End of story.
Thanks for reading!! If you want to contact me, I would love to be of any help that I can, so please do so: C.Starck@massey.ac.nz.