Tuesday, 7 July 2009

No Body’s Perfect: England international distance runner, Nicola Bamford explains why it’s important not to obsess about our weight and figures. (written for BEAT magazine/Running Fitness and UK Athletics - updated 07/09).

It’s amazing how much time some athletes waste by worrying about their weight and figure; I should know, I’m one of them. Perhaps it’s due to my age – I’m 23 – and the fact that I’m a female, aspiring to be a Great Britain international; but it’s most likely down to the fact that athletes, with their compulsive natures, have a tendency to become obsessively preoccupied with anything that could potentially hinder their athletic performance.

Sadly, the twenty-first century represents a society based on aesthetics, narcissism and ‘slimness’ which, combined with the physically-pressurising world of sport; creates a generation of insecure, self-analytical individuals. There are considerable pressures on both women and men to conform to the 'body ideal', which is oppressive in itself as society dictates that only the slim and toned are seen as attractive, leaving athletes with 'normal' figures to be classified as unattractive and ‘fat’. Due to there being no one true ‘ideal physical form’, athletes are faced with an ambivalent picture of the ‘perfect body’, leaving them to question their own figure and wondering which ‘ideal’ to conform to.

The pressure we put on ourselves to be physically-suited to the sport we do and love is so great that athletics may actually unwittingly legitimise unhealthy eating and exercise, by demanding faster performances and emphasising the need for a lean body – I can’t think of any successful heavy, ‘larger’ runners. I myself feel physically-scrutinised as if on display in my crop-top and pants. I can’t help but compare myself to other women in the competition arena, but rather than let it intimidate and depress me, I choose to focus on my performance and my achievements-it’s important to see the bigger picture.

Many are under the illusion that being thin automatically equates to being fast. This is most certainly not true – following dramatic weight-loss, an athlete would only experience a temporary improvement in their performance, shortly followed by a steep decline, due to the effects of malnutrition.

Runners have to regularly tolerate discomfort in training, and when I’m unhappy with my repetition times, I often say in frustration that I’d be faster if I was a few pounds lighter, despite being told I’m the perfect weight for my height. I wonder at times if I’d look slimmer if I were taller – at five-foot, I’ve had to resign myself to the fact that I’m never going to appear super-lean and graceful – so I reluctantly accept the body I’ve been given and try to make the most of it.

There is a fine line between being at your optimum performance weight and bordering on dangerous territory of being underweight. I’ve promised myself I won’t let vanity get in the way of stopping me from reaching my athletic potential and would urge athletes to ask yourself three questions whenever you’re feeling down and concerned about your weight and figure;
1) Are you healthy? 2) Are you training well? And 3) Are you competing well?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to at least two of these, then try, like me, to see the bigger picture. Athletes should see their body like a car – it’s nice if it looks good but what really matters is if it gets us from A to B and passes its MOT.

Body image can become an all-consuming pre-occupation to an athlete. The moment I became obsessed with my body coincided with me starting to take my running career more seriously. As a child and in my teens, I would indulge daily in chocolate cake, crisps and biscuits for breakfast and sausages and chips at lunch, saying to my friends “It’s fine for me to eat this, I’m an athlete”. My lack of education on nutrition contributed to this appalling diet, which in turn resulted in my athletic ability halting at county-level. Luckily, from aged 18, I was educated by a superb coach and sports nutritionist on how to devise and maintain a healthy, balanced diet; which ultimately was a determining factor in me losing my ‘puppy fat’ and reaching under23 international level.

Performance nutritionist, Mayur Ranchordas, asserts “even if you’re not elite but serious about your running, you should ask yourself if someone you didn’t know was to see you eat, would they be able to tell whether you’re an athlete. The biggest difference between elite and recreational runners is their body composition. Some people regard food as fuel, some don’t. You can’t allow yourself a treat just because you’re exercising but it’s important to occasionally treat yourself to keep yourself sane. “

I now try to see monitoring my weight as a minor part of my training schedule. I weigh myself naked every morning, which I admit, occasionally makes me paranoid, as I come to dread what the scale dial will tell me, especially if I’d allowed myself a desert or extra portion the previous day. There was a time when I had become so obsessed with my weight that I’d try to excrete after every meal and, whenever possible, try not to eat after 6pm - often having dinner as early as 4pm, so as to allow the stomach plenty of time to digest; weighing myself before bed also, to have a preview of what the dial might say next morning. Monitoring my weight ensured that the occasional ‘treat’-and eating in general-was ruined by guilt; even a one-pound gain in weight would drive me crazy, exacerbating my obsession for achieving the lightest weight possible. My coach and nutritionist downplay the importance of my weight, which is very consistent anyway, by using a ‘weight range’ (for instance, 6st10-7st3) to help maintain my self-esteem. I’m gradually learning to take the number I see before me in the morning on the chin.

Experience has taught me that an occasional food diary can be very helpful to -access our diets and to analyse our energy input-to-expenditure ratio, upon having it analysed by a qualified sports nutritionist. My diet isn’t perfect but it’s well-balanced. I dread (but secretly love) the food available at Christmas and Easter; I’ll practically beg my family not to buy me any chocolate and I choose to wait the seven months until the scheduled end of season ‘pig out week’, where I’ll allow myself to indulge in all the goodies I’ve banned myself from eating during the season. I will however, have a ‘treat of the week’, usually an apple pie with custard, and my vice is a daily hot chocolate (with skimmed milk and without cream of course!). I’ve found that keeping a diet diary has made me more disciplined in what I consume, as I’d want to be honest and not embarrassed in my account.

Ranchordas advises, “Ask yourself why you run – to eat or to enjoy running. Like your training and competition goals, you should have nutrition goals, but not to do with target weights, but recovery strategies like ensuring you eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and even the 80/20 rule – 80% of your diet could be sensible and healthy, with 20% being treats.”

One measure of ‘weight training’ to be sceptical of however, is the body-fat test. As with the weighing, this method of weight management initially turned me into a paranoid wreck. As with the dial on the scales, the importance I’d place on the skin-fold measurements had reached an unhealthy level. Athletes must remember that these weights and measurements are just numbers and do not determine our fitness level.

I find it so unfair that despite all the training I do (twice-a-day, average 50-60miles a week) and having a great diet and being tee-total, I still have to watch my weight –I guess I’m just unlucky to have a slow metabolism. Although I’m relatively happy with my body, I’d love to be slimmer and more toned, not so as to be more sexually attractive but to feel prouder and be admired, as I too am under the illusion that if I have toned legs and a six-pack, I’ll automatically be faster. Superficial I know.

I’ve driven previous coaches up the wall many times with the constant references to my weight and figure, worrying him and my family and friends in the process. I now realise that if I want to reach world-class level, I have to adopt a more professional approach towards my body, respect and accept my coach and support team’s advice and focus primarily on my running. I don’t know many who train as hard and live such a dedicated lifestyle, but it shames me to admit that the constant niggling voice in my head could ruin it all; stopping me from reaching my potential. It’s a constant battle that thankfully I’m strong enough to win because I love the sport and value my health so much, but unfortunately many fail to ignore this voice, ultimately succumbing to eating disorders.

For those who detest their bodies more than most, an eating disorder appears to provide the perfect remedy, but it’s a downward spiral. Often people with eating disorders say it’s the only way they feel they can stay in control of their life; yet the irony is that the disorder actually controls them. Distance runners are likely to be predisposed to eating disorders such as Anorexia nervosa (restricted eating due to feelings of anxiousness); Bulimia (binge eating followed by vomiting, taking laxatives or excessive exercise) and Orthorexia Nervosa (obsessed with only consuming ‘healthy’ produce). The dissatisfaction with one's shape can lead to an extreme fear of fat and, consequently, a distorted body image. This attitude generates desperate attempts to control one's body weight, which precedes these dangerous eating disorders and psychological distress.

According to the Eating Disorders Association, disorders occur due to a combination of factors, such as low self-esteem, personal or family troubles, death, education or work-related stress, sexual or emotional abuse, or sport-related pressures. The EDA regularly receives calls from distance runners with a distorted body-image, afraid of gaining weight in case it affects their sporting performance.

UK Sport’s recent study, “Eating disorders in sport” uncovered a high prevalence of disorders among elite athletes - 13.5% of world-class performers had developed one of these illnesses, despite their sporting success – with 20.1% of female and 7.7% of male athletes being affected.

The lack of recognition in men suffering from eating disorders makes it more difficult for male athletes to seek help, as research is primarily based on women. In 2001, UK Sport additionally found that out of 184 female distance runners, an alarming 16% had an eating disorder. An athlete’s dietary concerns should revolve around meticulous attention to diet and their weight, and should be goal-directed (the aim is to enhance performance, using food for energy and recovery, ensuring you eat to match the training load), instead of using sport as a substitute vehicle to achieve one’s desired physical form.

Females athletes may tend to feel more physically-scrutinised and pressured to look a particular way than males, due to being constantly surveyed under the ‘male gaze’, also combined with the fact that males generally have significantly more lean body mass and less body fat.

The Female Athlete Triad highlights a condition that can affect female distance runners who train hard and neglect their dietary requirements. The triad illustrates the relationship between disordered eating/energy availability (not eating enough to compensate for the training load), amenorrhea (lack of menstruation) and osteoporosis (brittle-bone disease). To aid one’s health and performance, energy balance is vital. Without adequate energy stores, it is difficult for training to be fully effective. If an athlete has low energy from chronically under eating and/or excessive exercise, they will lose weight and struggle to cope with the training load, thus resulting in a decreased performance. Some simply do not realise they’re not eating enough, as hard exercise does not stimulate an appetite, therefore athletes must make a conscious effort to eat properly before and after training – you wouldn’t try to drive around all day without putting petrol in the car would you!

To prevent and minimise the risk of developing a disorder, the EDA advise a balanced, healthy diet and exercise regime, as well as not letting your life evolve around food. As Ranchordas continues, “training’s easy to switch on and off; you don’t train for 24-hours a day, whereas food is an all-day affair; nutrition’s harder to handle, as we deal with it more often.”

Athletes appear to accept the disciplining of body control because it is masked under the promises of liberations. Women in particular, are therefore persuaded to believe that after they lose weight and tone up, their lives suddenly change for the better and they can pursue new challenges, previously unobtainable due to their excess weight. Ongoing surveillance and monitoring of one's own body shows how the athlete’s body has become a site of constant self-scrutiny.

My final-year university dissertation found that some women despise their figures because the 'ideal’ feminine shape in Western society resembles that of a young boy: wide shoulders, tight muscles and narrow hips. Regardless of how hard they try, women can never achieve this type of figure; most women are simply not born with male bodies. The general consensus from my respondents (athletes and non-athletes) was that they’d rather be skinny than fat; indicating that vanity and fear of our weight slowing us down is paramount in our minds.

Today’s cultural obsession with being slim clouds one important facet we, as athletes, must remember – that the optimum weight for training and competition is different for each individual. As one Nike advert once stated, women are often measured by the things they can’t control – their curves, the areas that are flat, the inches around their waist – but these don’t add up to who she is on the inside; and so if a woman is to be measured, let her be measured by the things she can control – who she is and is trying to become, because as every woman knows, measurements are only stats and stats lie.The human body is the most precious gift we’ll ever receive and while it’s important to look after it as best we can, we must remember it’s just an object; the costume concealing who we really are underneath, which, with our health and fitness, ultimately matters most.

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