As an athlete, people are fascinated by my diet. ‘Are you on a special diet’ is always one of the questions I get asked and it never fails to surprise people when I answer, ‘no, actually. I’m just encouraged to eat what I want, and plenty of it’. Not the answer most people expect. You may be wondering about the title of this blog; well it is inspired by a rather fabulously delicious pistachio whirl pastry that I had one Wednesday from a wonderful bakery in bath, The Bertinent Bakery.
I enjoyed my pastry in the middle of the main shopping centre in Bath accompanied by the rather more traditional post-workout snack; a protein shake. As I sat there, in full, full kit wanker mode (GB plastered all over me) I thought people must be thinking I was ‘treating’ myself with the pastry, or wondering why an elite athlete would even make such a choice.
Just as I chose a pastry to form my post-workout snack, I also enjoy a hearty burger, fish and chips and dare I say, even the occasional beige meal of chicken nuggets and chips! This is not to say I don’t take my nutrition seriously, I do. And most the time I eat fresh, nutritious food which aligns with my training needs. Nutrition is one of my priorities and a major determining factor in my success on the sled.
Let me explain. I first missed a period (yep this blog is about periods, gotcha!) because of (most likely) low energy availability caused by stress in September 2016. The eighteen months that have passed since have seen, or rather not seen, a convincing menstrual cycle. I am on the pill so (so I have learned) not bleeding in the ‘pill-free’ week is not necessarily an indication of amenorrhea, however, I also lost body fat and weight, was fatigued and susceptible to dizziness and illness. Something was off-kilter.
I must emphasise that I was not consciously trying to lose weight or ‘shred’. If you look at many of the best female skeleton athletes in the world they are strong, powerful women. No thigh gaps here. I had nothing to gain by dropping weight or cutting fat – and not a lot to lose in the first place as I am naturally lean and light for my height. This story is not one of a girl striving to be lighter for perceived performance benefits as is so common in endurance sport, the dangers of which has been wonderfully highlighted by many female runners recently.
This story is the opposite. A struggle to put on weight, enough to allow my body to recover its menstrual cycle, find some energy and to regain some resilience against illness. I’ve probably lost a lot of you now. With so many people on a mission to lose weight it is hard to sympathise with the girl moaning about how hard it is to put on weight. Stay with me. We don’t talk about periods much. And we talk about not having a period even less. But it happens; and we shouldn’t turn a blind eye towards it.
I find my sport very stressful. It causes me a lot of anxiety which has a metabolic cost (ever lost weight because of stress?) as well as making my appetite non-existent at times. There are also specific challenges to appetite, including altitude and frequent travel across time zones. And on top of all of that, I am a fussy eater and European hotel food just doesn’t whet my appetite. Oh, and the cold, can’t forget the cold. And I’ve not even mentioned the energy expenditure from the actual training!
Fortunately, I am very well supported and have an understanding team of doctors, nutritionists and coaches that are there to help. Despite all the plans, the meetings, the measurements I failed to eat an adequate volume of food and pretty much lost weight all the way from October (pre-season) to the end of January. Losing 4 kg in total, muscle and crucially fat (of which I didn’t exactly have much in the first place). A compounding factor was my appetite disappearing because of not eating enough; talk about cruel. It would take me ages to eat a meal; I’d forget my snacks because life on tour is busy and every morning the scales would show a lower number than the day before. Which was stressful!
I was constantly teetering on the edge. If I got it wrong for just one meal, the knock-on effect on my energy would be huge. I’d want to sleep way more than usual, feel dizzy getting up from seated and everything was an effort. Not ideal for someone needing to throw themselves down a skeleton run at 70 mph a couple of times a day. I missed crucial training runs in Whistler, La Plagne and Altenberg; I was not managing my eating very well.
At the time, I thought I was doing my best to eat to the plan set out for me. Three meals, three (large) snacks. I had a meal replacement shake, could basically eat all the naughty food in the world but still wasn’t gaining. It took me the whole of February to realise I hadn’t been doing enough. Throughout the month, I had training camps in Germany and Norway. Camps are different from race weeks; they are more relaxed. Your time is less structured (or at least it was for me in these camps) and there is more ‘free’ time or eating time as I came to realise.
I could make eating my priority. My appetite returned and I was robust in my strategies including how to cope when something I didn’t like (and absolutely couldn’t eat). Basically, I relaxed. Other factors played a part including a lower energy expenditure because I didn’t spend so much time warming up as I would in a race. And my weight responded! I was constantly full, I’d be ready for bed but wouldn’t go to sleep before my evening bowl of cereal or yoghurt. Dairy was my lifeline; hello blue milk! It took a lot of effort and discipline but I finished the season at the same weight I started it – 68 kg. And I felt so much better for it, no missed days of training in February, a happier and healthier athlete.
Once the season ended I could make some changes that would allow the medical team to better investigate what might be going on with my hormones (if anything). This meant coming off the oral contraceptive pill. We’ve all heard the stories about coming off the pill haven’t we? Gain/lose weight, painful periods, acne, moody, emotional etc etc. I have been pleasantly surprised; yes, I have felt a bit more up and down but this accompanied the return of a menstrual cycle too! YAY! It only took about a month for my period to arrive, and I have had another since suggesting that where I am now is a healthy place for my body to be. It’s taken a lot of worry off my shoulders too meaning I can just concentrate on getting my meals in and training.
Obviously, I will need to have some robust strategies in place for next winter; one’s that recognise the time needed for me to get the food in. I’ll also work on some failsafe back-ups in case I get faced with offel again (Sigulda). But for now, I’ll take my body as it is; healthy and strong.