Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Female Athlete Triad

The Female Athlete Triad is something that I need to be mindful of, as do all competitive athletes. (I won't be explaining the Triad so please refer to the link if you are not familiar with it).

Many competitors I know do have some sort of disordered eating. This isn't the same as an eating disorder though, such as bulimia or anorexia, but can be just as serious and can affect relationships and long term health.

The emphasis on the physique in my sport demands that food is weighed and measured, not one extra ounce allowed or enjoyed. Some live like this for a certain length of time (the 12 week prep period) while others may live like this all year long.

Binge eating is also an issue, after such a long period of deprivation many competitors cannot or will not stop eating when given the chance to have whatever they wish.

I have experienced some of the triad myself, and it does concern me so I am very conscious of it at all times. Luckily I have not experienced an eating disorder, although I do know a few women who have, most are not open about their eating disorders since they are more phycological issues than anything. No one wants to admit they have one, like a drinking problem, they think they can just ignore it then it doesn't exist. Add to this, the fact that for some odd reason, people are embarrassed to discuss menses. It is a normal and healthy process that women go through. 

You should be able to discuss all of this with your trainer- male or female. They need to know what is going on with your body. 

My own personal experience has been with "low energy availability" followed by amenorrhea. Basically I expended more energy than I took in on a daily basis for an extended length of time, and I stopped menstruating for several months. I didn't eat enough food to sustain myself in a healthy manner.

You can read about my hydro-static bodyfat testing here if you like. I was way too low. Mike, the fellow who tested me said he had never tested a woman that low and only one person ever - a male. I didn't try to get that low but it happens, you get your head into the diet and cannot really see what you look like, and then stopping the loss takes time, just like starting it.

After a couple months I saw my doctor and he too was concerned. I had blood tests, hormone levels tested, vaginal ultra sounds, bone density test, you name it!  In the end, after deciding I was ridiculously healthy and strong ( with amazing bone density - the same as the comparison used- that of a 27 year old female) it was decided my bodyfat was just too darn low and I needed to plump up!

All competitors have to restrict calories, but each body is different and all women are different. Some may be able to compete at 10% bodyfat and some need to get much, much lower. I am one that needs to get very low, in fact at my last competition I was sub 3%.

I do want to make sure that you understand you can go through this without an eating disorder, just reducing calories too low can cause this. 

So what's the big deal anyway? I mean who cares if you have really low bodyfat and you stop menstruating?  Women who suffer from this can develop osteoporosis due to low estrogen. And then as she ages, bone fractures are increasingly common. This is a very, very serious disease. If you enter into amenorrhea, be cautioned, it's a serious situation and needs to be rectified. 

Clinical symptoms include disordered eating, fatigue, hair loss, cold hands and feet, dry skin, noticeable weight loss, increased healing time from injuries, increased incidence of bone fracture and cessation of menses. Affected females may also struggle with low-self esteem and depression.

In all the years I have done this, my bodyfat always got down around 4% at competition time and I never had any health issues, last year when it was below 3% I did. I am being very careful now so that I do not get that low, since dropping bodyfat for me has never been a struggle, when I get my head into it, I do it. 

I am making sure that I go more slowly, I ingest more fats to sustain myself and I don't overdo the cardio. 

Watch yourself, or if you have a loved one you are concerned with, talk to them if you see something that is a red flag. 

The above picture was taken Saturday, March 17. I am down to 124 now, and bodyfat is dropping, you can see the difference since last week quite easily, but I am still not too low in bodyfat, so I am ok for now!