A stunning, graphic, factual look at the close correlation between high performance sports and eating disorders in young, developing athletes. Helle Frederiksen, London 2012 Olympian, three-time Ironman 70.3 Champion and recent Hy-vee Triathlon 5150 Champion sheds light on a dark, often unrecognised hole in the high performance world. In her own words “Performance set ups can and are failing the natural process of development in the production of champions.”Helle F

Recognising failures and spotting trends

Athletes are failing, at a young age, during development and in later life. Yet trend and history tells me that it is not the athletes that are failing. It is the systems failing the athlete.

It’s time to take a look at some facts, highlight clear areas of grey and work on them to become black and white. High performance environments, federations and persons acting as coaches and/or mentors need to act up. Nurture in a way that promotes athlete longevity, consistency over a period of years, most importantly recognize that healthy bodies last a lifetime, broken bodies take a lifetime to heal.

The role of head coach, sports director, mentor, advisor and governing body carries a duty to preserve athlete longevity. That role does and should carry a responsibility to help prevent eating disorders just as it does to prevent and treat injury. To date there are approaches, communicative methods and shortsighted mentalities that are heavily contributing to an athletes fall in, and towards an eating disorder.

Prioritizing Athlete Longevity

Understandably the majority of athletes do not carry the education and know-how to make them aware of the long-term consequences associated with eating disorders. Therefore it is our role, the role of everyday people, head coaches, sports directors, mentors, advisors and governing bodies to effectively drill home just how crushing an eating disorder can be on long term and present health.

Triathlon falls into the “leanness” category among sports, where control over body weight is key for peak performance. Weight-control behaviours are a widely accepted and used approach in aiding an athlete towards peak performance. Yet studies show that such approaches, that see stark and dramatic fluctuations in weight-loss, are heavily connected to eating disorders, long-term performance inconsistencies more so long-term body irregularities. One ‘Journal Of Eating Disorders’ study is quoted as saying “it is well recognised that dissatisfaction with either shape or weight of the body and a resulting dieting behaviour are risk factors for the development of eating disorders.” This recognition allows us to heavily connect large numbers of high performance systems and approaches, driven by short-term goals, to the contribution and onset of athlete eating disorders.

Studies show that 35% of “normal dieters”, not just in sport but also in life, progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders. Now this isn’t to say that diets are the cause of eating disorders, it is to say that diets are often a precursor. Diets and intentional behavioural patterns towards food and nutrition ultimately take the human body out of its natural process and into a state of imbalance, when we think of longevity and consistency, this imbalance we must avoid.

Psychological Awareness

A 2006 comparison of the psychological profiles of athletes and those with anorexia found these factors in common; perfectionism, high self-expectations, competitiveness, hyperactivity, repetitive exercise routines, compulsiveness, drive, tendency toward depression, body image distortion along with pre-occupation with dieting and weight.

Recognising that dietary approaches and weight-control behaviours contribute towards the onset of eating disorders. As seen above, a number of psychological signals and personality traits also add vulnerability towards certain profiles. Awareness of all that is connected to eating disorders should make it more accessible for high performance setups and approaches to steer developing athletes in a direction away from behavioural eating patterns, potentially leading to eating disorders.

Studies indicate that 24% of women in elite sport suffer with, or have previously suffered from an eating disorder. I really do not believe that any person, coach, federation or high performance setup wants an athlete to succumb to the perils of an eating disorder. Yet history, trends and evidence shows that we can really being doing more by increasing the knowledge, awareness and focus towards long-term consistent success.

Future injury, illness and inconsistency is no coincidence

So how exactly are those enforcing weight-control behaviour, preaching the need to hit ‘racing weight’ and generally not giving eating disorders the focus it deserves, doing any harm?

The human bodies ability to perform when young, more so when ‘old’ is heavily effected by the strength and structure of our bones. Eating disorders during adolescents deprives the human body of key nutrients during the most critical time of growth and need. This deprivation, imbalance and instability in the delivery of key nutrients into the body, between the ages of 0 through to 30, yes that is correct, thirty, dramatically effects the bone structure, strength and brittleness of the human body, lifelong.

Not only is it bone structure, strength and brittleness that is heavily effected, it is every vital function of the human body such as hormone system, neural system, immune system, cardiovascular system etc.

Stress fractures are commonplace, not just during an eating disorder but also post disorder. It is not uncommon for athletes 4, 5, 6 years post disorder to find themselves with reoccurring bone related injuries, illness and immune sensitivity, performance inconsistency and low self-confidence. These are all things that can come as consequence of imbalance towards the eating pattern i.e. weight-control behaviour, bulimia, anorexia, fanatic-eating patterns (depriving yourself of certain nutrients) and binge eating.

It is raising the knowledge of, and awareness towards additional risk factors, such as the use of weight-control behaviours, psychological profiles and the long-term structural damage, that will hopefully lead to the development of preventative strategies for eating disorders. It is my belief that the approach, attitude and placement of medals before long term athlete well being and consistency, is a contributory factor that I feel needs addressing. Weight-control behaviours are a fraudulent long-term solution.

Dramatic weight-loss often results in decreased training output or an inability to cope with the sufficient amount of intensity and load that is required to perform to the highest level. Quick fixing weight loss is ultimately cheating the training process and as every champion and consistent performer will tell you, there is no cheating the work required to perform.

Don’t pressurise a sensitive athlete. Don’t force fast/immediate change unless health is at risk. Don’t promote idolism of another athletes image. A one-size fit all body image does not exists. Work and love what you have.

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