Competitive athletes face a constant conundrum in many sports. Gaining weight can give you more energy, muscle, and endurance. But losing weight can put you in a different competition class, which can make the difference between winning and losing. For women athletes, there’s also the extra pressure of keeping their weight down for appearances. Looking chubby or masculine can be brutal when you’re in the the media spotlight. Coaches and athletes alike have long bought into the “leaner is better” idea. But there’s a cost to dieting while training for a sport. Nutritionist Christel Dunshea-Mooij became concerned about New Zealand women’s rowing team after the 2016 Olympics. They were in danger of RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport.
In 2018, Dunshea-Mooij tested the female rowers to find out their energy availability, which she describes as “the energy available to the body – from food – after the costs of exercise have been accounted for.” So what’s left over to run your body for the day.
The athletes made a food diary to see how many calories they were consuming, used their watches to calculate their energy expenditure, and had DEXA scans to determine their fat-free mass.
“When we saw the data, we were shocked,” Dunshea-Mooij admits.
She drew up a risk model based on the IOC consensus statement on RED-S, with three coloured zones – red for high risk, orange for moderate risk, and green for low risk of RED-S. “Only one of our females was in the green,” she says.
RED-S can cause issues with bone density, fertility, immunity, and metabolic and cardiovascular function. (Most of the rowers had “excellent bone density”, also measured by the DEXA scan.)
Dunshea-Mooij worked with the rowers’ coaches to turn things around. This not only meant eating more, but changing how the athletes thought about eating.
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Jackie Kiddle, the current world champion in the lightweight double sculls, was also in the orange after the original testing.
As a lightweight athlete, the change in fuelling was a big shift, she says. “It used to be you ate less to stay a lightweight. But to be able to see I could eat a lot more and then train harder – and stay at the same weight – was eye-opening. It made a huge difference to the way I trained, because I could work harder.”
The change in their training diets led to four Olympic medals won by female boats in various rowing events. In fact, rowing was New Zealand’s most successful sport in Tokyo. Read how they did at Newsroom. -via Metafilter