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Weight and the female athlete
Posted by: Ninam91
Posted on: Tuesday 15th May 2012


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Here is the latest update of our new series from Nina McArthur. Nina recently launched launched her own blog (www.sinkorswimnina.blogspot.com) to track her progress after returning to the sport, three years after losing her motivation and health as a 17 year old elite junior triathlete. Alongside her own blog, Nina will be contributing to Tri247 regularly on...whatever she wants!

In this piece, Nina begins to explain just why that motivation and health went through the floor, and just how far her descent into ill-health went. A very personal and honest read on the dangers of excessive focus on weight, especially for female athletes.


Browsing a triathlon forum and I came across a cyclist searching for the book 'Racing Weight' by Matt Fitzgerald. Reading a review on this publication really worried me, more so the fact that such books centering around the concept of 'how much better would your performance be if you dropped some weight?' are published so frequently. Because this is how my decline from strong, consistent performance began.

I've recently started reading Chrissie Wellington's autobiography after seeing a Guardian article. It brought me to tears to learn how such a successful female athlete could overcome similar tough experiences to mine to go on and win every one of her thirteen Ironman Races, becoming World Champion four times.

Nina McArthurAt the end of 2008, my triathlon career also came to an end. In my last race in the Corus Elite Series in Strathclyde in September, I was pulled out of the water in the Supersprint Final with mild hypothermia. However, July 2007 was when my troubles initially began. I had always been a stronger built athlete, a strong shape for swimming and for hill climbing on the bike. In fact I was so much renowned for beating the men up the hills in the Peak District on my club rides that I was bought the red polka dot 'Tour de France Jersey' as a surprise for my 16th birthday! At that point I averaged around 8.5-8.75 stone, pretty good for my height of 164cm. That summer month saw me compete in the Dee Mile Swim in Chester where I won the Womens' wetsuit category and also a nice stomach bug for three days after. With little appetite and energy, I dropped to eight stone.

My first session back at the track after a few days off and I found I ran really well, feeling light on my feet. The previous year I'd been to a British Triathlon Training Camp at Loughborough for the Talent Programmes and they emphasised how important it was to be 'optimum racing weight' and to always maintain a low-fat athlete's diet. I decided if maintaining a lower weight would make me faster and help me to gain that extra competitive edge then that is was I would do. So into the 2008 season and I remained at eight stone, not daring to eat anything that wasn't labelled 'low in fat' or considered 'healthy'. I found it so easy to avoid any other foods with the motivation always present in my mind of 'it will keep you on the Talent Programme, make you faster and make you win'. My weight didn't drop below this, mainly because I would happily refuel with bread and pasta, but my body fat percentage reduced significantly as I would only accompany it with fruit, vegetables and lean meat and fish. So the events occurring at Strathclyde were inevitable as my body fat percentage had dropped that low that it couldn't protect me from the icy cold water.

Over the course of the year I had also noticed the development of some components of what is called the 'Female Athlete Triad'. This consists of disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis. Just suffering from two of these can make you at risk of long-term health problems and I knew I was heading in that direction. Women often feel more pressured to have 'the right body type' for their sport and this is why after the race in Strathclyde, I returned to the running track ready for winter Training, ran one lap then left the track in tears and never looked back (See my blog). Females seem to experience many more problems when they over train or lose weight to a level that isn't right for them and coaches are having to become more aware of this as it is increasingly publicised especially within sports such as gymnastics and athletics. Your health is something that is precious and nothing should force you to sacrifice that. As shown with the Female Athlete Triad, some effects can be irreversible so aspects such as bone strength and fertility may never return if habits are maintained for too long.

Nina and VickiFrom January 2009 I learnt to cope without sport, putting all of my energy into my A Levels to achieve straight A's and progressing into the working world over the next two years. I remained very conscious of healthy eating, still experiencing immense guilt feelings if I was ever tempted for anything not considered 'healthy' or 'low fat'. It was early 2011 when my body hit breaking point as a stressful placement on my Graduate Programme at work meant that I felt more in control by controlling my food intake whilst striving for perfection with heavy workloads in the banking sector. Missing meals became a habit with my food intake dropping and dropping until in April 2011 I hit 6 stone. It took me collapsing on a course at work to finally realise what I had spiralled into, despite my family and friends trying their utmost to make me see. With their support, I worked hard to get myself on that all important upward spiral and on my 21st birthday in March 2012 I completed a morning swim session with Manchester Tri Club followed by a party in the evening with all my close friends, merry with food and drink. This will remain one of the most memorable days of my life, a dramatic change from being lay in hospital just a month after my 20th birthday not even being able to run to catch the train to work. Within this article I've only included photographs of me before and after my troubled years, any photos when I was at my worst would be too upsetting for both me and yourselves to include.

Chrissie Wellington has a very similar story all be it her problems were prior to her involvement in sport whilst mine, like many others, were the result of it. She began studying for a masters degree in international development after gaining a 1st class degree in geography degree from the University of Birmingham. Unfortunately she had also developed the eating disorder anorexia, from becoming obsessed by healthy eating, weight loss and her own body image.

In an interview with the Telegraph she said "The victims of such illnesses are often very ambitious, outwardly successful young women who pursue these ideas of control and achievement. We're driven, compulsive, obsessive, competitive, persistent and seek perfection. That can be channelled incredibly negatively."

It is so important that coaches and governing bodies understand the pressures that young teenage girls, as athletes, are under. They are dealing with often over twenty hours of training a week (especially in triathlon) alongside studying for exams and some sort of social life. Any suggestion of adjustments to diet and comments about their bodies should always be made in the right way and as I say to friends still in the sport who sometimes think they're heavier than their peers want them to be, they need the correct professional nutritional guidance when undertaking any intention to drop a few pounds. I lost my energy, strength and almost my life stemming from striving for perfection within triathlon. I now feel so lucky to now have my health, and also my love for triathlon back. To swim, cycle and run with club-mates, many of whom are now close friends several times a week, usually followed by a social coffee gives me a constant smile and is more than I thought I would ever do again. My next goal is to complete the Boundary Breeze Sprint Triathlon in July is my next one, I can't wait.

Chrissie cycled from her home to a Wimbledon village cafe for the interview with the Telegraph in February over a cappuccino so she definitely shares some of my passions. She will also always have my vote for Sports Personality of the year because although her achievements have been from the age of seventeen to last being World Champion in 2011, I think she will continue to inspire athletes and young women and girls for a long time to come.

'It's not what you go through that defines you, it's what you do after you've gone through that really tests who you are'

A friend has also recently nominated me for the Cosmopolitan Blog Awards, please visit  www.next.co.uk/cosmo-blog-awards if you enjoy my blog (www.sinkorswimnina.blogspot.co.uk) and find it interesting and inspiring enough to be worthy of a vote :-)


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