Today, after three months of curtailed running due to injury, I look different. My stomach has rounded and my hip bones don’t stick out, my arms are more muscular. I’ve tried to keep up my physique through cycling and strength training but it isn’t the same as running consistent high mileage weeks. I am no heavier on the scales but don’t look as tight and it is hard to accept. But I have to learn that I can’t keep my body at that point (11% body fat) indefinitely. I need to give myself the chance to heal and get stronger. Maybe I’ll achieve that level of fitness again, but I hope that if I do it will be with a better understanding of the costs that come with it.
Since the podcast episode I did with Chris Sandel of Seven Health came out, I’ve had so many lovely messages of support, and questions from people who recognise their own issues in my experiences. It is touching to hear so many positive comments, and amazing to realise that what I went through is not uncommon, if not much discussed. I’ve written before about the sanitised Instagram life that becomes the veil for people’s true struggles, and bringing it into the open in such a public way seems to have encouraged others to interrogate their relationship with exercise, body image and food.
Out of the various messages I received, there has been one common thread: “should I eat more carbs?”. It is astonishing how many athletic women have become subsumed in the rhetoric of low carbohydrate/ketogenic eating that was never designed for female athletes. Women who, like me, are training multiple hours a day, and are restricting their carbohydrate intake, and are not recovering, not adapting, and on top of all that, are feeling guilty for not being able to sustain their restrictive diet. It is crazy.
Low carbohydrate diets are not designed for people who are currently in training for endurance sport. They work very well for sedentary, overweight people who need to shed excess body fat. They work brilliantly to help with metabolic disorders and certain other illnesses. They work well for someone who runs a 5k a few times a week and does a few sessions in the gym. Athletes have different nutritional requirements. There are some athletes who can perform on this sort of regime: they tend to be male, they have a very very good relationship to food, meaning they are able to respond appropriately to their hunger cues and eat sufficiently to sustain their bodies, and they are able to be flexible. They have stable hormonal balance, and are able and willing to eat what is required. Basically, for this way of eating to work for an athlete in any way, it is necessary to be a) male, and b) not othorexic in any way at all.
Sadly, a lot of the athletes who gravitate towards this way of eating do so because they are already inclined towards disordered eating and are looking for a “fix” to their eating issues. If they are also female, this can lead to disaster.
Eat food. Real food, that is nourishing, filling, fueling, and in sufficient quantities to sustain your energy throughout the day. It isn’t black and white. Quality, good tasting food, balanced into carbohydrates, protein, vegetables and fats. Don’t eat stuff that isn’t recognisable as food. If it is real food, eat it.
I did this interview with the fantastic Chris Sandel of Seven Health a few weeks ago. I’m very open and honest about my struggles and the sort of things I’ve been going through over the last year. I hope that it helps someone out there to hear about it. It isn’t easy to talk about such things but I do appreciate the opportunity I was given. If you haven’t come across Chris before, I highly recommend his podcast Real Health Radio. It is fantastic.