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 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.
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 following eighteen months did not see 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 (absence of a period for three consecutive months), 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, or in the pursuit of a six-pack to show off on Instagram.
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.
I find my sport very stressful. It can cause 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).
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 70-80 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.
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). 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. 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 came off the oral contraceptive pill (microgynon if you’re interested) to better understand what was going on. 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 a regular cycle since suggesting that where I am now is a healthy place for my body to be.
Which brings us back to the pistachio whirl (got there in the end!). So, what I am saying is that whilst it may surprise people to see me eating what many would deem an unhealthy food, for me, it serves a purpose. That purpose being calorie intake and energy availability which allows me to do my job. Oh, and obviously, it tastes amazing.
Since I have become more vocal about my period (excuse the pun) of amenorrhea (try spelling that without spellcheck) I have realised that many other athletes have experienced it too. It is scary that this is not in the conversation until someone else brings it up. Amenorrhea is not something that is okay or expected because you’re an athlete and you’re training hard. It indicates that ultimately your body is under too much stress to reproduce. And although having baby is unlikely to be on many athlete’s immediate to do list this cry for help by our bodies should not be ignored. Many athletes I am sure feel the pressure to be lean, but if this is at the cost of your menstrual cycle then I’d urge you to reconsider your body composition and find a better balance.
In hindsight, I could and should have tried harder to regain weight over last winter. I think a little bit of diet brain kicked in (you know, that voice that tells you you look better this way) and skewed my self-image. Thanks to a great post by Emilia Thompson on Instagram (@emiliathompsonphd) I realised it comes down to respecting yourself and your health; fuelling my body (which I ask a lot of) the way it deserves and needs. I honestly find it so hard to eat enough once I am on that downward trajectory (for all the reasons I already explained), but this post reminded me that just as losing weight takes work, so does gaining.
The good news is that I have sat at a ‘healthy weight (for me) for the majority of summer now. Yes, I feel a bit softer than usual, my abs are not as defined as when I weigh less. BUT I have gained so much strength this summer; being able to train consistently thanks to adequate fuelling. And that’s the goal – performance and health. I have to be proactive; looking ahead to my week and making sure I have enough food handy if I am out and about a lot. If my steps are high (which they usually are) I know I have to account for this extra expenditure. It takes some organisation but I’d rather that than having the stress associated with dropping weight.
Winter is coming around again and obviously, I do not want a repeat of last year. I want my period to show up every month, as a sign that my body is in a good place. For this to happen I will need to have some robust strategies in place; one’s that recognise the time needed for me to get the food in regardless. I’ll also have to put in the work; starting with sacrificing 5kg of luggage allowance for food in my case! But for now, I’ll take my body as it is; healthy.