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Wed 29th Jun 2022
Nina McArthur: Just think...
Posted by: Ninam91
Posted on: Saturday 2nd June 2012

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Nina McArthur follows up on her hugely personal and honest article on 'weight and the female athlete' last month, to address some of the discussions and arguments that her writing, plus news of Hollie Avil and others has caused in recent weeks.

In Nina's view, the arguments of blame - be it athlete or coach - is a debate that will not help awareness or resolve eating disorders in sport.

It's not an issue, just think to keep smiles in sport.

The topic of female athletes and eating disorders in sport has recently exploded onto the scene, particularly in triathlon following my recent article and Hollie Avil's announcement of her retirement due to such past issues.

Since then, there has been increased media attention through a comment made about Jessica Ennis apparently ‘being fat with too much weight' and also concerning Rebecca Adlington who was criticised over her apparent ‘un-feminine' body shape. The people behind these comments are lucky that the latter two athletes are so strong that they didn't let it affect them. Ennis certainly showed what she is made of by breaking the British Heptathlon Record just a week later.

However, a constant argument has arisen between those saying that it is the athlete/sufferer's fault that they spiral into an eating disorder and those heavily criticising the coaches for being bad people for making the comments on weight. This debate is not going to help achieve awareness in facilitating the reduction of the problem of eating disorders in sport.

I did not write my article to infer that I am against coaches and governing bodies giving guidelines on the best ways to develop into a top athlete and I really feel that this concept must be cleared up, especially given discussions across the triathlon world including comments such as ‘it's realistic to point out that if you want to run fast you're going to have to be on the light side.'

Such a comment said on its own is dangerous to athletes susceptible to influence, keen to impress and willing to do anything to win; all common attributes within the sporting world. Yet, should the above person said, ‘a slight change in your diet to reduce your body fat by maybe swapping that chocolate bar for a protein energy bar after a training session' could change the result of that comment entirely.

I would never criticise a coach as being ‘bad' for saying it, even the best coach in the world could slip up through not thinking, however it is  important to me and many others, that both inexperienced and experienced coaches keep the issue in the back of their mind and make sure their athletes stay healthy and happy.

There is absolutely no problem with coaches suggesting that an athlete should adjust their diet or body composition to improve performance. The issue is that sometimes, as in the case of Hollie Avil, a coach (not even necessarily the athlete's own coach), will make an off-the-cuff comment such as ‘you need to lose a bit of weight to run faster' or ‘cut out fat from your diet'.

Back in 2006, the way the idea of diet and nutrition was presented to me was that I needed to be an ‘ideal racing weight'. This again is not necessarily an incorrect statement however it was said to me and twenty other athletes as a group, in a large room in the format of a Powerpoint presentation. There was no individual guidance given such as a personal assessment of what was best for each athlete. A steady drop in weight over the next two years followed by three years of struggle was what followed for me, all from information being conveyed very generally and from a lack of personal support.

It is true that in athletics the most common build is that of an endomorph, so basically in textbook terms a slim physique tends to be most effective. However, some athletes (including me) aren't naturally built in such a way. I was much more suited to having stronger, slightly bigger quadriceps to power me up the hills on the bike and give me enough strength to run strongly, larger shoulders that would pull me through the rough and tumble of open water swimming whilst still having a toned stomach and slim lower arms & legs.

Nina then (2007), and now (2012)

Now, I find I am weaker at climbing hills on the bike and significantly weaker at swimming in open water than a pool although my running has improved quickly within the two months of me returning to sport. As much I attempt to fuel up before and after sessions, my weight loss has left me with much less muscle, a great reduction in strength and a lower energy capability which will take a while to return. Would you really wish any athlete to be in that position as a result of reducing to a build that is not right for them?

It is also important to remember that having an eating disorder does not necessarily mean that you are extremely skinny, it can simply mean that food controls your life. Whether that is being sick straight after eating (bulimia) or severely restricting your eating to an amount that is too little for your calorific needs (anorexia), both are dangerous mentally and physically. Athletes may be more susceptible to the effects of these actions because of their increased calorific needs therefore an incorrect change in diet can have dramatic effects in terms of weight, strength, concentration and overall bodily health.

From the stories that have arisen of late I want to express how I think the sporting world and triathlon in particular can change. All that I want to see achieved is for any person, be they a coach, governing body official or sports journalist, to think before they make a comment.  Similarly, I want to encourage any athlete to reflect before making a conscious decision such as a strategy to change their body shape, and to talk it through with a sports nutritionist, coach or their support team whom they trust.

If someone in a position of power makes a comment, it should be supported by guidance explaining what they mean and how to achieve it, ensuring that the athlete's overall health always comes first. Everyone says things spontaneously without thinking. I'm not saying I wouldn't point at someone on the TV and say ‘they've put on weight!' without a second thought, but it is important when dealing with athletes who are training hard to succeed that we don't pile on the pressure and impose generic strategies of ways to improve performance.

Yes, certain body compositions can be more beneficial for certain sports but not if it isn't right for that particular athlete, resulting in them losing strength and form through trying to be something that they are not. Athletes can only be healthy alongside being lean if they have good guidance concerning their diet. It is very easy to develop an unhealthy mindset towards food from comments made such as ‘eat less carbs and fat' or ‘you need to attain 10% body fat'. This can be the start of a slippery slope such as the one I experienced whereby the bottom of that slope was me laying in a hospital bed with not even enough strength to run for a train let along go for a jog in the sunshine.

I end with a quote from Matt Fitzgerald's article Are You Eating Too Much? "Make a modest reduction in the amount of food you eat each day, particularly by tuning in to your appetite and not eating when you're not truly hungry and not eating more than you're truly hungry for. You never know where this little test might lead you".

That last sentence is critical and the main point that coaches and those in positions of power such as governing bodies or the media should remember. Think where that comment might lead. Please.

You can read more from Nina via her blog:

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