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?”
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.
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 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.
To learn more:
- WHISPA was set up in 2017 by High Performance Sport New Zealand specifically to support female athletes. They have a webpage with details about RED-S and Low Energy Availability.
- Holly Thorpe and her WHISPA colleague spoke to Nine to Noon in March 2021 about the results of the WHISPA survey Holly mentions in this episode. The paper that reports the survey results is available here.
- Katie Schofield has a website where she blogs about low energy availability and RED-S.
- The most high profile example of someone telling their RED-S story is probably Mary Cain who spoke to the New York Times about her experience in the Nike Oregon project.