Here’s an open book into the last two years of my life.
Only four words? How can that be possible? Must be something absolutely terrible. Something earth shattering. Who uttered that to her? What could they have said that was so awful to ruin everything?
Turns out nobody said anything to me at all. And it wasn’t terrible at all, just fact. Pure and simple science. Being a Bachelor of Science I ought to have known better, but it was all horribly misconstrued by my own mind.
Power to weight ratio.
That is all – it’s a term commonly bandied about by cyclists and other athletes, runners, rowers, or rock climbers. So what does it even mean?
Your power to weight ratio is how many watts you can produce divided by how much you weigh. The more watts you can sustain and the less you weigh, the faster you will be able go uphill. – Road Cycling UK
In the beginning
I was new to cycling, had invested in my first road bike and was starting to spend more and more time in the saddle, a few commutes a week and trying desperately to hang on to the weekly club ride. Having grown up as the least sporty girl in my year at school, it seemed like a miracle that I’d finally found a sport that I really enjoyed.
That’s why I’d picked up a bike again. Having started an office job after leaving University with a degree and an extra stone under my belt, I concluded it was time to do something about my unhealthy lifestyle. Knowing absolutely nothing about road cycling, I entered a local charity sportive in six month’s time, the Jurassic Classic, and decided that now was time to start training on my clunky hybrid for the thirty five mile course. It was when I had the chance to hop on a friend’s road bike for just a short stretch of the Exe Estuary cyclepath that I really caught the cycling bug.
Having moved half way across the country to pursue a graduate job, joining a cycling club was a fantastic way of getting to know the locals and the local roads. The Gorilla Firm is a small, high-end cycle shop in sleepy Oundle with an associated group of riders (but certainly NOT a club) that ride out twice weekly. Although most of the so-called Gorillas were old enough to be my parents, the friendships that I began to build were invaluable, and these keen cyclists soon became my second family. Riders ranged in skill and choice of discipline but the majority were very competent road cyclists, having been cycling seriously for a couple of years. There’s no better way to improve than to ride with people much better than yourself, or so I was told, so my never-ending struggle to keep up meant I was rapidly gaining fitness and confidence.
Not only had I found a sport that I was really enjoying but also improving at and gaining a lot of friends through. I suppose I’ve always enjoyed hobbies where women are in the minority, and my fondness for shooting and stalking was very quickly overcome by the endorphin filled desire to chase miles.
Cycling began to take over my life. In what was a pretty difficult period of personal circumstances, the thrill of thrashing through 20 miles on a dark and wet Wednesday evening or eeking out more and more miles each weekend soon took priority over everything else. I was desperate to do anything in my power to become a better cyclist, with the ambition of one day being able to keep up with my family of Gorillas.
Hills in particular were where I struggled. Justin used to give me handy tips on club runs, lean back, sit up, keep your upper half steady and let your legs do the work, just relax and breathe. But no matter how hard I tried, I could never stay on their wheels. When I came across the concept of power to weight ratio, the answer seemed simple, by losing weight I would become quicker.
Where it all went wrong
By losing weight I would become a better cyclist.
By losing weight I would be able to keep up, to get more kudos from my new circle of friends, to achieve more.
By losing weight I would have the chance of really getting good at something that I was so passionate about.
You get the idea. It seemed that I had found the answer that would help me in my quest, and the way to do it wasn’t even that hard. Putting all those miles in burnt a hell of a lot of energy, and working mainly in the office I was able to pack very healthy lunches. I could easily substitute milk out and have oats and water for breakfast in my porridge, and fruit in the day for snacks. Dinner would be a plate full of veg to keep me feeling full with some protein and a carb like pasta or new potatoes if I’d cycled that day. On the rare day that I didn’t cycle, I didn’t need the extra energy, right? So I’d happily replace it with cauliflower rice, or some other way of cutting out those ‘unnecessary‘ carbohydrates.
The plan was working and I could see the progress. Every week another pound or two less to heave up those hills. I was getting better, slowly, still not catching them up but the gap was narrowing. I started to see features for the first time in my life; the shapes and angles of my collarbones and shoulders, the tendons along the backs of my hands. I felt elegant and womanly like the actresses in the big budget films. My legs slimmed and felt more athletic, I happily waved goodbye to my love handles in favour of a straighter, more flat and boyish profile. My ribcage became slightly more pronounced as did my spine, and to me it was all a trophy of the hard work and discipline that comes with being slimmer, that coveted shape that I had never before achieved.
Is something wrong here?
It started to become more and more regular until I found myself balancing on the scales every day, monitoring not only my weight but my body fat percentage and the circumference of my body in various different places. It became a ritual, normality, and there was no-one else there to tell me otherwise.
There was no time for socialising. I’d see my few friends at work anyway, or I’d bully them into coming riding with me. I hadn’t drunk alcohol for months, what was the point? Just empty calories that left you feeling rotten and heavy the next day and would certainly make your legs feel worse. I had my new friends now, the Gorillas, and I would spend as much time as I could training with them. I was getting so many compliments about my size, feeling fantastic about the praise and my narrowing waist was the envy of many of them.
I’d quickly erase the moments of panic from my mind. It wasn’t helpful to dwell on the moments in the supermarket where they didn’t have my favourite snack or those times when forced into eating out with friends and not knowing what had been put into the food that was going into my body. Most traumatic of all were the work trips with colleagues or industry partners where I had to be seen to be taking part, to staying up late drinking their local wine and eating their prized delicacies which were usually laden with oil or served with huge hunks of white bread. Did they not know how far I’d have to run to burn that off?
All this time I publicised my life through social media with the same positive mentality as ever. Things were great in my eyes, cycling was a dream and I was making myself a better person too. Now looking back, in every photograph I see a crisis. I was lonely as hell, but no one needed to know that. The more I did, the less time I had for that anyway.
Not stacking up
I hadn’t had a period for six months, and only then did I start to question it. To be on the safe side, I consulted my GP. What resulted from that appointment was quite a shock, expecting to be told that it was just because I was exercising every day and at a body fat percentage of athlete status (yes, I’d made it down to the coveted 20%), and that I would be absolutely fine. Dr Baker pointed me in the direction of Mandy and Sue and I soon had my first appointment with the lovely ladies at PEDS.
Peterborough Eating Disorder Service. Eating disorder? I wasn’t anorexic, I loved my food! I was still eating three meals a day, I wasn’t scared of eating, I knew I needed to to fuel my cycling. And I certainly wasn’t being sick, so what was this all about?! And although I had lost a stone and a half, I was no-where near looking malnourished. I have had friends suffer from Anorexia, and I know all too well what that looks like.
Talking about it was hard, but registered nurses Mandy and Sue were wonderful. By asking just the right questions, they helped me to explain my lifestyle and the way I was eating to sustain that. Only trouble was, I soon learnt that I wasn’t.
Never heard of it? No, neither had I. That’s because it’s not formally recognised as an eating disorder, and lies distinct from anorexia or bulimia.
Anorexia athletica is an eating disorder characterised by excessive and compulsive exercise. An athlete suffering from anorexia athletica tends to over exercise to give themselves a sense of having control over their body and is more common in people who participate in sports where a small, lean body is considered advantageous.
There was more -the eating wasn’t the only problem. Mandy explained how it fitted into the bigger picture, the Female Athlete Triad.
The Female Athlete Triad is a common problem in female endurance athletes and refers to the harmful effects of low energy availability on the reproductive and skeletal health of physically active women. The Triad is a syndrome of three interrelated conditions that exist on a continuum of severity; disordered eating, menstrual disturbances and bone loss.
From that single hours session in Mandy’s lodge my eyes were opened. I had never conceived that I had an eating disorder, let alone other issues. It was not that I wasn’t eating enough or wasn’t eating healthy things – I just simply wasn’t getting enough of it for the amount that I was doing. They had explained the other impacts of low energy availability and it all tallied up – the recent deterioration of my previously perfect eyesight and the need for glasses, the way my hands and feet suffered so badly in the cold through the winter. And if I hadn’t had any cycling oestrogen in the last half a year, how weak were my bones going to be? If I had a crash on the bike would I end up with six or eight weeks off the bike nursing broken bones? Now that really would be a nightmare.
A change of mindset
I suddenly felt a strong sense of guilt about the way I had treated my body over the last few months. Thinking that I had been doing the best thing for it, to improve myself and the way I could perform, I soon learnt that I had been doing just the opposite. I was frequently running out of energy and suffering on rides as I had no fuel for the fire, and my maximum heart rate had slowed by about 10%. After all, it’s just another muscle that needed feeding.
Shocked and scared into action, I went on to work with Mandy and Sue to put together a course of corrective action for my body. Coming to terms with the fact that I’d have to put on weight was really, really tough – it had been my life’s work for the last eight or so months, all I’d worked for, and now I was going to go and undo all of that. Putting a meal plan together with that many meals and snacks seemed daunting, especially the thought of calorie rich meals like lasagne and pizza, even if part of a balanced diet.
It was really hard to let go of the obsession. When you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol and you go through rehab you just cut it out and it’s no longer there. I couldn’t simply cut out riding my bike – it had developed into such a life line for me and potentially a very healthy part of my life. Like the eating, I had to relearn about riding for all the right reasons, for enjoyment and satisfaction rather than compulsion and punishment.
Over time I steadily started to put weight back on and after a few months my periods returned. Unlike most girls of my age, I was delighted. My body, although far from fixed, was starting to be happy again. Balance was being restored in my life and coming into spring my mood was on the up as well as my personal circumstances. My body and I were friends again, and we were out of the woods.
The flip side
Out of the woods, or so I had thought. It’s hard to explain, but there’s almost something honourable about having an eating disorder and unhealthily losing weight, when you’re in that crazy, contorted state of mind. What happened next was anything but, and the shame of it made it even more difficult to come to terms with and get help for.
There’s two parts to Binge Eating Disorder (BED), a physiological and an emotional hunger. It’s particularly hard to talk about because of the shame, the sense of greed and the way its almost incomprehensible to anyone who has never had any issues with their eating habits. When you try to explain, in confidence to someone you really trust, that you have unshakeable urges to binge eat and they reply ‘oh yeah I do that all the time, last Saturday night I couldn’t help myself, I had a two mars bars and a large glass of red‘, it makes it really difficult too.
The best way I can think of explaining it is like a mist that comes down over you. You no longer control your own thoughts and actions, you are hijacked by some other, hungrier being as you rapidly and consume whatever you can lay your hands on. You continue to eat whatever comes to hand, whatever you can find in the shop, forget the price, you’re not thinking straight anymore and neither is your stomach. You are feeling full and bloated but you carry on, until you can almost feel every morsel stacking up in your gut. Nothing else can infiltrate your mind, no logical thought or reason in an attempt to stop you, but similarly no fear or sense of danger. You are numbed for a while, immune to whatever may be going on around you.
Until you wake up. Something switches and you eventually stop, feeling sickeningly overfull and disgusted at yourself, having consumed much, much more than would be considered normal in a single sitting, even for someone with a healthy appetite or an athlete in training. All that hard work in weight control that you have been putting in is suddenly for nothing, and the shame overcomes you. From a sensation of complete numbness you are now in a state of disgust, guilt, horror, its happened again and you didn’t stop yourself, even though last time you promised that you would.
Over the next six months I put back on all the weight that I had previously lost. Partly physiologically driven, where my still-starved body was craving vital fuel to keep me going and power the miles I was pushing it through. The more I started to gain weight, the more I wanted to stop, so I started to restrict my everyday consumption in order to get back to what I thought would be a sensible weight, midway in my range. But the harder I tried, the more susceptible I would become to bingeing, and the worse I would feel for having undone all of the work again.
I tried to tell myself that being smaller wasn’t better, that I was a better cyclist than ever now. I was achieving so much despite putting the weight back on, breaking my own records, cycling further than ever before, touring solo for 10 days and smashing through the RideLondon 100 miler at a fraction off of 20mph average, something I’d never dreamt I would be able to do.
But putting weight back on made me feel hugely uncomfortable. Despite vast improvements in my personal life, moving to a new city and happily making lots of ace new friends to ride with, the weight and shape issue still terrorised me. I would, and still, tell myself that people will think that I am too fat to ride, too chunky to go fast, too big to be a good rider. I know deep down that it’s a load of rubbish, I’ve been on rides and races with women twice my size who’ve absolutely smashed it past me.
The trouble with BED is that in more severe cases it leads to something far worse, Bulimia Nervosa. It’s all too easy after the horror of a binge to feel deep regret, and the urge to do something about it takes over. It becomes a learned skill, and almost qualifies binges although the truth behind it suggests that being sick actually does very little to mitigate the damage of bingeing.
Getting help is never as easy as it should be, and after a consultation with the GP, three different assessments with different organisations in the NHS maze and routine blood tests I was finally added to the waiting list. When you’re living with an all-consuming eating disorder, you simply can’t hold on for six or eight weeks or indefinitely.
The ultimate cure?
The breakthrough came in my assessment with STEPS, the eating disorder help service in Bristol. My assessor James was a keen cyclist, and although we were very tempted to spend our hours session discussing the best climbs in the Pyrenees, we really dug down into the heart of my challenges. Discussing this with someone who really got it from a cycling perspective was invaluable.
Have you ever noticed how the industry portrays an image of ultimate dedication, sacrifice at all odds to the cause? How ‘pro’ riders will only drink espressos at the café stops? Why is there such a pressure to consume such a measly amount whilst out on training rides?
It’s important to remember that you are not pro, and training and nutrition is highly personal. Meeting professional sports dietitian and eating disorder specialist Renee McGregor, author of Training Food, was a huge step into realising how much food I needed to sustain a level of riding specifically for me. 60g carbs for every hour on a high intensity ride, that’s nearly three bananas! No wonder I bonked at mile 60/100 on RideLondon…
Back to the assessment with James. I heard and read it all before, but coming to terms with it and agreeing to it honestly made me cry – the only way to get over bulimia is to stop trying to lose weight. Again, as something that you’ve tried to do for years it’s something that’s hard to stop trying (even if you are horribly failing) to do. And this time round I was horribly unhappy with my body, not only the way I looked but also the way I perceived myself to be performing on the bike. And again, unlike rehab for drink or drugs you simply can’t avoid food altogether.
The last word
The ultimate cure is learning to be happy with what you’ve got – the law of reversed effort suggests that the harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. So being grateful for and learning to love the skin you’re in seems to be the answer, although how this relates to being ‘race weight’ or a professional athlete I would have no idea.
Why have I decided to share this story with you? Not because I seek sympathy or attention. I found the hardest step was reaching out for help and talking to people about eating habits once I had recognised that there was a problem. Turns out that more people are affected than I had ever imagined, and even though horribly unfortunate, it can be comforting and a great strength to speak to other people in the same position or in different stages of recovery. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and with the wrong information and mindset, even simple messages only four words long can be hugely harmful.
Why is there still such a stigma around eating disorders and mental health on the whole? It needs to be stopped. Only by talking about it can we face up to the issues and start to tackle them, head on.
#endthestigma #letstalkaboutit #strongnotskinny