29 Jul 2021

Running low on energy

From Our Changing World, 5:00 am on 29 July 2021

Watching the Olympics from the safety of the couch with snacks in hand, it’s hard to imagine what athletes go through to reach the pinnacle of their sport. We can find ourselves watching and wondering, “What does it take to be so fit? What’s the price of that sort of success?”

A New Zealand track cycling team of 4 riders cycle in the velodrome.

Photo: AFP or licensors

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For some athletes it’s meant almost starving themselves to achieve their desired body weight and goals. In the ‘no excuses’, ‘no pain, no gain’ world of elite sport, hunger for success sometimes means actual hunger, but this can have devastating consequences to the athlete's performance and health.

Now, athletes are starting to speak out and researchers, like Dr. Katie Schofield at Waikato University, are turning their attention to RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport.

Schofield, a professional track cyclist for four years, was diagnosed with the condition herself, and was forced to take a year out of the sport to recover. What she learned on her personal journey inspired her to return to research RED-S for her PhD.

Katie Schofield track cycling for New Zealand

Katie Schofield track cycling for New Zealand Photo: © Dianne Manson/CyclingNZ

All of us need a baseline amount of energy to keep our bodies ticking over. But when elite athletes – or even over-enthusiastic amateurs – are expending so much energy in their training and not putting enough in, the deficit can do serious damage. It impacts not just the athlete’s performance, but also their mood, immune system, hormone levels and bone health, among others.

For example, RED-S can lead to lower oestrogen, causing disruption in the menstrual cycle and loss of bone strength. If left unchecked this makes the athlete vulnerable to future fertility issues and stress factors. The warning signs can be missed amidst a tough training schedule and the stigma against not wanting to look weak; it’s often not until bones are broken or other more serious injuries occur that people realise something more is going on.

RED-S infographic explaining the physiological impacts. There are pictures of different systems - psychological, cardiovascular, haematological, endocrine & metabolic, bone health, gastronintestinal, immunological and gastrointestinal.

RED-S infographic explaining the physiological impacts. Photo: Supplied

RED-S can be a result of simple miscalculation – a mistake in estimating the amount of calories needed or an underestimate of energy expended. However, it can also be a result of other issues – eating disorders, addiction to exercise, pressure from coaches & teammates, societal pressure to look a certain way – and these are more difficult to unravel and address.

In this week’s episode, Schofield shares her PhD research, as well as her personal experience. Sociologist Professor Holly Thorpe of Huataki Waiora School of Health and WHISPA – (Healthy Women in Sport: A Performance Advantage) explains the complexities of the problem, the layers of pressure that athletes face, and the importance of researching this condition in a multidisciplinary way.

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