My wake-up call

Since my training sessions, race performances and energy levels began to plummet at the beginning of January, I knew at the back of my mind that something had to change. I felt unmotivated, constantly exhausted and demoralised as I slowly but surely started falling behind teammates.  Inspired by others’ stories, I want to talk about my (ongoing) experience with RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport), how I accepted it and finally decided enough was enough. Before getting into this post, I want to highlight a few things though; I’m not a qualified professional, I’m still struggling with this, I am not a “success story” to live by. I just want to open up and hopefully further the discussion about this all-too-prevalent issue.

A bit of context
Nothing will take away from the friendships I’ve made/ good times I’ve had

In order to understand where I am now, we need to wind back a few months to the start of uni. I never lied about settling in pretty quickly, making some incredible friends and loving my new training with the Haries. However, what I didn’t share – because I was ignoring it myself – was that, between balancing studying, training, socialising and sleeping(ish), my weight was dropping. I had no scales, so I wasn’t knowingly inflicting this upon myself. Subconsciously, though – and it’s all the more obvious to me with hindsight – I had started to restrict my food intake. Part of it was related to budgeting and not wanting to overspend on food, but I can’t deny that part of it was in line with my history of exercise addiction and disordered eating.

Performance peaks
Scottish Unis was a big high for me

Despite losing weight, my race and training performance was only improving exponentially. I seemed to be going from strength to strength, which is another reason why it was easy for me to ignore. I was placing first in league races for U20, and top 10 overall. In the 10K Braids hill race, I came 2nd female. At the Scottish Unis race in Aberdeen, I managed to secure a top 10 position, coming 6th, gaining me a spot in the Inter-Districts XC champs in January. In December, I got a huge parkrun PB of 18:44. This might come across as bragging, but trust me – that’s absolutely not my intention. It’s incredibly bittersweet to me now, since those peaks currently feel like aeons ago and were hiding the damage I was doing – mentally & physically – to myself.

At what cost?

As athletes, we always want to push ourselves to our limits. Be the best we can be. Train harder to perform better. You get the idea. But at what cost? Initially, my times were going down effortlessly and I got massive runner’s highs after every run. It all felt like it was finally falling into place. However, come December, I burnt out. I wrote about that in this blog post, where I took a week off sport to remedy it. At first, the week off seemed to help. But it soon became apparent that it wasn’t enough to fix the damage that I’d done after months of under-fuelling.

January blues
Inter-Districts was seriously tough, mentally and physically

In January, my wake-up call finally came in the form of numerous bad races (Inter-districts, the final league race and BUCS) and repeatedly awful training sessions. My legs got tired after 200m of jogging at a pace I used to do effortlessly. I slept atrociously, but needed it more than anything. I picked up a few niggles here and there. But most of all, I fell out of love with running. This sport that had given me so many highs, was currently giving me no joy whatsoever. And, for me, this was what made me realise that something needed to change. Because I couldn’t carry on trudging through session after session feeling like absolute sh*t (excuse the expletive).

Looking for help elsewhere
I think my face shows how awful I felt…

My parents have always been extremely supportive of me in all aspects of life. Academics, athletics, health (mental & physical) and blogging – you name it, they’ve been there for me. And I’m eternally grateful for that, because I know not everyone is fortunate enough to say that. It was my mum who made me realise that I needed external help. Not from a therapist/ doctor, but from a qualified coach who would have a holistic view and approach to my training. That’s not to say anything against therapists or doctors, just that at this stage it’s not what I need. After contacting Ellen (@teenrunnerblog), I decided to get in touch with Jess Piasecki from Run Science , who helped her recover from her stress fracture via her training and nutrition.

Getting back on track
Post-gym protein courtesy of Missfits (use my code fruits5 for £5 off)

I first spoke to Jess almost 3 weeks ago, sending over a food and training diary to her so she could help me rectify my balance. I’m still working with her, and there’s still lots to cover, but she immediately picked up on the fact that I was nowhere near fuelling enough for the amount of training I was doing. I now have two snacks daily – regardless of exercise – plus an oaty protein shake (to ensure I get carbs too) straight after any training session. In addition, I’ve been increasing my general carbohydrate consumption, especially at lunch so I don’t come to evening training with already depleted energy levels.

Slow and steady

It’s a gradual process, and it has by no means been easy. At first, I was scared at the prospect of eating more whilst not increasing my training. Nevertheless, I am reminding myself daily that doing this volume and intensity of sport is my choice – but in order to continue doing so sustainably, I need to start fuelling myself adequately. It might sound obvious to some, but to others – myself included – it’s a difficult connection to truly make and believe.

Same shake, different day
Onwards and upwards

So far, I have noticed differences already, especially in training. My reps have begun to go back down to what they used to be. In swimming, I have been able to go further and faster than ever before at no extra effort. And, most importantly, I’m rediscovering my love for running. I’ve still had blips – because we all know that progress isn’t a straight line. Mentally, I’m ok, but it can be tough when your jeans feel tighter and your cheeks look fuller. Deep down, though, I know that these are signs that my body is getting stronger.

RED-S is an awful thing, but it’s also in the individual’s hands to reverse if they have the right support and mindset. I’m not “fixed”. I’m not magically back to where I was before I started spiralling downwards. But I am happier. And I’m getting healthier – mentally and physically. I just need to keep going. This time, I’m hopefully better equipped to make long-term progress and maintain my love for the sport. The biggest BS that is ever fed to us aspiring athletes is that lighter = better, no pain = no gain, and further = faster. I would say that health, happiness and consistency are three crucial components to sustainable success. I’m not a coach, though, so don’t quote me on that!

A few noteworthy websites/ articles/ posts

I hope you’ve found my experience insightful and that it has potentially helped to reduce the silence surrounding RED-S. If you wish to discuss this further with me then my inbox is always open 😊. 

Emma ♥♥