If you could talk to your younger self, I wonder what you’d say?
Would you tell yourself to stop putting so much pressure on yourself?
Would you tell yourself that fast times aren’t determined by what you eat?
Would you tell yourself that thinner doesn’t equal faster?
I certainly would.
I had known for a while that something wasn’t quite right. Irregular menstrual cycles… cold hands and feet… always tired… lean, but not strong. I knew there was something, but didn’t want to admit it. Then my menstrual cycles completely disappeared. A few trips to the GP; always the same answer: you’re slightly underweight, but it’s common for female athletes to lose their periods. Common? Maybe. Healthy? Definitely not.
But when you’re seventeen and sport is your world, having a missing period seems convenient. I didn’t have to worry about dealing with my period at major competitions. I didn’t have to worry about being bloated and tired at training. And I certainly wasn’t planning on getting pregnant any time soon.
But that’s where we go wrong. We are raised to believe that periods are simply responsible for fertility. Whilst that’s true, menstrual cycles are also responsible for hormones; such as oestrogen, which supports bone production. Hormone fluctuations throughout the month also allow for growth and development. It’s your body’s way of letting you know that you’re a healthy weight. Little did I know that without my menstrual cycles, I was really putting my health at risk.
Often, athletes believe that lighter is faster. I had fallen prisoner to a similar mindset, where I believed that my race times were determined by what I ate. Cake, biscuits, chocolates, crisps, pizza; anything diet culture labels ‘bad’, I avoided. I was obsessed with eating ‘healthily’, because I truly believed that this is what I had to do to get to the top. It didn’t help that I was praised for my behaviour. To others, I was ‘disciplined’ and ‘healthy’. Surely, this girl who looked so lean and happy couldn’t be in any way unhealthy?
It was my 18th birthday when things really hit home. Everyone else was having a slice of my birthday cake, but I could hardly bring myself to eat even the thinnest slice ever. I was filled with fear that this small piece of cake would make me swim slower – despite the fact that I didn’t even have any upcoming competitions. I had to justify my decision to have cake on my 18th birthday… that’s when I knew I had taken things too far. What had started with good intentions when I was 14 had led to a relationship with food that consumed me.
This is when I opened up about everything to one of my coaches. My diet, my mental health and my lack of menstrual cycles. Was this daunting? Absolutely. But after opening up, I just felt so relieved that someone would be able to help me.
REDs (relative energy deficiency in sports; formerly known as the female athlete triad, before it was discovered that males can be affected too), in simpler terms, means that you aren’t giving your body enough calories to function properly. You’re expending much more calories than you’re consuming, which means your body is being starved. At first, you might perform well at a low weight. But as time goes on, your body will struggle to keep everything going and start to shut down. An easy warning sign to spot in females includes loss of periods, as your body shuts off the reproductive system, to direct the little energy it does have, elsewhere.
The process of recovery took me some time. I had to challenge ideas that I had ingrained in my mind for years. I had to challenge behaviours that I had taught myself were ‘wrong’. I needed to gain weight, for my body to trust that it was at a weight that was healthy enough to restore my periods. I had to get myself out of a starvation state. It sounds difficult. At times, it really was. But rather than focusing on the weight gain, you have to focus on everything else you’re gaining in the process. I gained back my periods. I gained a better mentality. I gained a better relationship with food. I gained strength. All these little things you gain eventually add up. You find yourself performing better, sleeping better, recovering better. Smiling more, enjoying more, laughing more. You find that you’re happy again.
I’m still learning every day. You’ve got to take things slowly. You’ve also got to take that first step. Acknowledging that something’s not right can be hard, but the journey to being healthy again is worth it in every way.