In a sport where energy output must be carefully replaced by the right food at the right time, Bláithín Sheil talks about how women are constantly told to watch what they eat and how this impacts an athletes ability to fuel oneself.

The way society talks to women about food is dangerous for female athletes.

There are a lot of female athletes competing at club level that don’t fully know how to fuel correctly. I am one of them. And I think this is linked to my conditioning as a woman in society.

As an avid fan of athletics, I try to take in as much useful information as I can to help me be a better athlete. Trying to learn about how to fuel myself, how to eat for recovery and so on. Some of those biggest lessons have come from friends and peers in the our sport.

Yet somehow, some fueling basics were lost on me. It’s a little confusing as to how I got this far. Why it never occurred to me that despite characteristically running out of steam on most long runs and in many longer races, I didn’t take a look at what I was eating. The assumption being that it’d figure itself out eventually.

Conditioned early

In my opinion, this is linked to the fact that I grew up reading how to substitute my craving for chocolate with something ridiculous like ginger tea, columns encouraging us to kick start our new year with five habits to shift that Christmas weight gain, and dreading my leaving certificate year because of the paralysing fear of the “sixth year stone.”

We were led to believe that less is more, and best to err on the side of caution if in doubt. So when I ran into issues, I assured myself and those involved in my training that of course I eat enough. And I do, most of the time.

I walked right into the schoolgirl trap. Only recently over a Christmas bottle of wine did an old school friend and I look back at the madness that was the “health” culture that thrived in every girls school in Ireland. We were all deluded.

I suspect many readers can relate, but I stand open to being corrected.

Educating young athletes

Since I was about 14, the narrative I experienced framed food and portion sizes as some sort of enemy to be reckoned with. I was a very sporty teenager, I played basketball, hockey, rowing, canoeing, scouts, hiking, gorge walking. You name it and I probably did it.

Yet despite this high level of activity and the hunger that came with it, in no magazine or news show did I learn how to fuel up for a big day ahead, or was it explained that I should probably eat something right after a match because of the “twenty minute window”. My mom had my back of course and I was in no way undernourished. But I was completely uninformed.

In all of the magazines, television shows, and, consequently, conversations with friends, food was always framed as something to be controlled and, if it tasted just a bit too good, feared. We were never encouraged to view food as fuel.

Par for the course for female athletes

I think this developmental experience is very common among many female runners out there trying to get better and faster, no matter where on the scale your personal best times lie. I also think that the consequences of this experience are more far reaching that I initially thought.

This lack of information surrounding food affects non-elite level athletes disproportionately because we lack the resources to look at these things. I don’t begrudge anyone for it, it’s just a fact, the way it is. Elite and club runners have different levels of input and support for their running, it obviously takes a lot more to compete on an international stage.

When you couple a high energy requirement sport with a culture that encourages you to always have less, there are going to be problems.

Examples from my own experience

In November, I almost ran the National Senior Championships 8k cross country race on a breakfast better designed to fuel a Sunday walk down the beach.

By a total stroke of luck I ended up discussing what I was going to eat before the race in a group chat. A sense of urgency struck when I realised that my conception of what was “enough” differed wholly from what was required to fuel for such a physical test. I was shocked that I couldn’t see what was as clear as day.

Thankfully I got great advice and did not bonk. I did however bonk in all of my races longer than 5km during the 2018/2019 winter season, except the one where I deliberately didn’t go near that red line of hurt because I didn’t want to go the ambulance again.

There were other factors at play there too, but the role that fuel played in that season is crystal clear to me now. It was not clear at the time.

Learning from my own experience

After this year’s race I had a nagging feeling that led me to write this. How on earth did I not realise that I hadn’t planned enough fuel, and now that it seems so obvious, why did I not realise this before? I try so hard to be the best athlete I can be, so how did I miss this crucial information?

The scary thing, and the crux of this argument is that I thought I was fuelling enough. I wasn’t deliberately trying to eat less, but on deep reflection about why I thought I had adequate breakfast on the table, the conclusion I have come to is that years of diet culture has affected women, even those trying to overcome it.

In conversation with my coach about how this knowledge was lost on me, I tried to articulate the female experience. It’s not that I didn’t want to eat more, but I didn’t know that I needed to. And when in doubt, what should women do? Err on the side of less.

Social pressure on females

Do the following phrases sound familiar? “The calories don’t count if you’re standing up”, or “I’ll only have half a dessert”, or “be careful not to eat too much in that tight dress”. The worst of all is when a non-runner is shocked that you can eat lunch and still have room for a snack in an hour or so, or eat the same size lunch as a male colleague because, you know, the metabolism is firing on all cylinders.

It is particularly difficult for women to navigate when dealing with non-runners who might not, through no fault of their own, appreciate that your needs are somewhat heightened. I don’t think men are greeted with the same shock when their appetite is shown. The angel is on one ear talking sense to you, the devil is on the other reminding you not to over do it.

Does this sound familiar?

Women are confronted with questioning at all times about whether they have eaten too much. Men are normal for ordering a second breakfast.

Women are encouraged to have less not more err. Men eat more if they want no questions asked.

Women are rarely asked have they eaten enough. Men are given seconds by their mams.

As we all know there is massive societal pressure on women to be thin, which is equated with being feminine. Big efforts are being made to celebrate a diverse range of women, all of whom are beautiful. But this only offsets the general standard by a marginal amount.

How messed up is all of this?

There is a lot of conversation about female athlete health at the moment, and while this article is not about RED-S or disordered eating, the issues here do form part of the collective female experience.

This collective female experience is a problem for all women, but when experienced by female athletes, it can become dangerous.

Note: I write this opinion in relation to the female experience only, because I have not experienced the social influences that men are exposed to throughout their young adult lives. I would love to hear from any men who can relate to this piece, or have an entirely different opinion on the matter.

For anyone wishing to learn a bit more about their own training and race nutrition Fast Running recommends Training Food by Renee McGregor. An easy to read, but extremely informative book about fuelling your training and recovery. 

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