Today I went down to train with my weightlifting coach, and we got into a conversation about weight - our weight on the scale, not what we were lifting. It started with discussing some of the challenges that we’re experiencing now as women in our 40s, but quickly we traveled back in time where both of us could pinpoint a place where things changed in our bodies, and the misinformation we were given about nutrition and fueling as teen and collegiate athletes.
For me, it really just went back to college.
Although I was a competitive gymnast and cheerleader throughout my childhood and high school years, my weight was never a concern. I was never good enough where the issue of my needing to lose weight to better my performance came up. Although I do remember being told not to actually drink water during breaks, but to rather swish it around in my mouth and spit it out. The idea being that my thirst would be quenched but I wouldn’t gain weight - I was probably around 10 years at the time.
My coach, on the other hand, was a much better gymnast than me (among other things as you’ll see) and remembers repeatedly being told that she needed to lose weight in order to be better. She’s probably around 5’2” or so now, so much more petite than I am. She remembers a coach asking her to drop weight around her tween years - she was 76 pounds at the time, and that wasn’t small enough.
Both of us continued to drift towards weight-class sports in college and in adulthood.
For me, it was rowing. My senior year of college I was asked to cut weight and join the lightweight crew. The weight limit was 130 pounds and I am 5’8”. When they asked me I was about 150 with a lot of muscle from the training of the open weight women. I did it.
I stopped weight training and basically stopped eating - at least during the week. I practiced twice a day, once being an hour-long cardio workout where I wore as many layers as possible to sweat the weight off. We didn’t have access to a team dietician, and so I just figured eating a little as possible was my best chance. This usually meant lettuce with lemon juice and maybe a 90 calorie serving of soup. There was no talk of proper fueling for injury prevention, recovery, or performance. Usually, I came into a race extremely depleted and dehydrated. Once my crew had to pull me out of the boat when my leg cramped so severely that I actually tore a muscle. The sad thing is that I would spend the weekend binging on all of the food, only to shoot back up to 145 pounds by Wednesday or Thursday and would start the cutting process down to 130 all over again. The cycling of weekly loss and gain left me with a metabolism that never quite recovered - even 20 years after the fact.
My coach went on to wrestle in college (women’s team people!) and eventually was recruited to the US National Team. While there, they convinced her to give weightlifting a shot. She spent over a decade competing for these two national teams, and yet still suffered the pressure of making weight for her sport. She remembers having access to the Olympic Training Center’s sports nutritionist and dietician but remembers that they did not have a good understanding of her need to make the weight. They would tell her to eat more, but she couldn’t because she would gain weight and then her place of the team was gone.
And then we moved on to the changes in metabolism that pregnancy and perimenopause bring (for both of us these two glorious events have crossed paths). Both of us agree that our metabolisms are “off”. She knows that she has thyroid issues, I suspect that I do. We’re both trying to be competitive and healthy as Masters athletes because we know better. But those old conversations and thoughts about “making weight quickly” still come up. For me when I look at what weight class I’d currently compete at and think that it’s too much. How do I get smaller? Can I get down to another weight class by March (when Masters Nationals is)? Then I shake it off.
So here’s my thought - not only do we have to change this conversation for ourselves, but we have to help prevent this mindset from taking root in our kids.
Many of us have children who are starting the athletic process, and you need to be aware that many of them are already being indoctrinated that they need to be less to do more. This is NOT OK. I’ve spent the past 20 years counseling my high school athletes on better approaches to making weight - one that allows your to fuel to enhance your performance while planning weight loss, instead of the desperate scramble to cut before a competition. And if you’re thinking your kids doesn’t have an eating disorder (or that you don’t) look again. Just because we’re not looking at a clinical disorder doesn’t mean that disordered eating habits aren’t present.
They were for me, and often sneak back in when I’m feeling pretty down about myself.
Kids watch you. Kids listen to the adults who they respect.
It’s up to us to make sure that they are getting the correct information about nutrition and sport, and not the cheats. Because these cheats can lead to poor performance, injury, and a complicated relationship with food as they move into adulthood.
Educate yourself on proper nutrition - know the differences between eating for health and eating for sport and the differences for each sport. Better yet, seek out a professional who counsels in this area - a sports dietician/nutritionist (look for the CSSD or CISSN certification) or certified athletic trainer (that’s me) who can help you.
Finally, if you have a daughter, please be aware of her eating habits, and language around food and weight. While both girls and boys (women and men) can suffer from the pressures of making weight, I’ve seen it affect many more girls over the past 20 years that the boys. Making sure we get to them young and establish healthy eating and fueling habits can prevent conditions like RED-S (formerly known as the Female Athlete Triad) that can lead to serious issues, such as fractures, anemia, and depression.
Do you have concerns about you or your child’s nutrition habits, especially when it comes to activity-related needs?
Let me know. Shoot me an email and we can chat. If I don’t have a solution for you or your needs are out of my scope, I’m happy to connect you with a professional who can help.