Last week, the debate raged globally in our sport about the pressures runners face to perform at their so-called ‘optimum’. Even the notion of what ‘optimum’ can be debated too. Emelie Forberg took the mantle up in her blog, which to be frank was a breath of fresh air. It slapped the face of the practices employed by some coaches and athletic federations around the world when it comes to training and racing – the notion that to win you need to be ‘fit and light’. There are huge variables in our sport and athletics I appreciate, but this article will look at what we can do in our sport and how we can learn from others.
As mentioned, there are many different sides to this debate, as well as the huge number of variables that exist between track athletes and trail runners. I won’t go into too much depth about this, but suffice to say that in trail and ultra running, you see many different body types win races, simply because of the varying terrains we race upon. The fact is that certain body types will suit certain trail races – we should celebrate this and be grateful that a sport can offer this to many different people. Track distance athletes generally a certain body type, very lean – emaciated if you ask me.
But while that athlete may ‘excel’ with that body type, is it really what we should promote to the next generation of sporting stars? Is that body type really ‘healthy’? I won’t apologise for this, but mainstream media also has a lot to answer for in the way it classifies body types. We see this in women’s magazines, a volatile source of hypocrisy whereby women are constantly told that supposedly ‘fit and healthy’ is an emaciated model on the front cover of a magazine, yet articles inside the magazine will conflict that cover image.
But back to the matter at hand. As sports become increasingly popular, so too do the commercial aspects. Prize money, social media stardom and the pressure to ‘win’. As a result, the hang-up to be ‘fit and light’ could (and in some cases) filters through into our environment. We have an opportunity to challenge that notion and shove it up the arses of those coaches and sports that have practiced it for years, ruining the lives of many athletes.
Fit and light does not always mean ‘healthy’. And while an athlete might win the odd global title destroying their body to do so, we have to consider the long-term physical and psychological effects that this has on athletes too.
One athlete that had ten years of her life pretty much ruined by this philosophy was Hanny Allston. I’ve spoken with Hanny quite a few times over the years and we get on well, but I had no idea of the issues and challenges she faced as an elite athlete in both swimming and athletics.
Speaking to her yesterday opened up a can of worms that if I’m honest, I would like to see the back of in sport. Which is why I feel in trail running, we have a massive opportunity to shape the way we want our sport to be. To shun the practices of other sports and to lead healthy, fulfilling lives for the long-term.
Hanny, prior to her athletics career was a very useful swimmer. In fact so useful that she trained with an elite swimming squad at National level. She was just 14 at the time, swimming at senior national level as a 50m freestyle sprinter. She recalls one incident with the coaches that pretty much shaped her life for the next eight to ten years.
“Our coach at the time gathered us all together, about 15 of us. He then asked us to sit down if we’d eaten a chocolate biscuit in the last three weeks. A few people sat down. This then continued, asking us about consuming ice cream and butter. Gradually everyone sat down bar one girl. We were told that this was the standard by which we had to adhere to.
“We had our body fat taken every week and we were pushed way too hard, all in the name of being ‘race ready’ and ‘fit’. Of that squad, ten of us developed eating disorders, including myself and three were hospitalised as a direct result of the methods employed.”
Disillusioned with swimming and what was ‘perceived’ as success and considered ‘what you needed to do to make it’, Hanny left the sport. But the damage had been done. She moved to running at 16 where things only got worse.
Built like a swimmer through the six days a week in the gym, she went into running and was told rather frankly that she was ‘not built to run’ because her legs and thighs were too big. Here you have people of massive influence, with zero experience of training and working with young girls, employing highly damaging mentalities that ultimately devastated the lives of highly impressionable 16-year-old girls.
Hanny adds, “It puts fear into your head when someone says you’re ‘too big’ to run. I watched diet even more so, fuelled by the practices in my swimming career. I lost more weight and people would say that I looked ‘fit’. But by 2008/9 while I may have been ‘fit’, I was not in a healthy place, physically or emotionally. I was ‘lean’, but getting more injuries and my performances were very inconsistent.”
Things went from bad to worse. Hanny recalls a women’s distance training camp for elite runners in Melbourne she attended. Part of the camp was to do a ‘Masterchef’ style of activity, creating the ‘healthiest’ low-fat meal possible, reinforcing strict notions about the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ food to consume.
“We trained exceptionally hard on low-fat food. I remember one two-hour run before breakfast that essentially turned into a competitive race among the girls – it would always end up like this – we’re all competing for national selection. We’d race hard and one girl would consume steak and diet pepsi for breakfast to keep fat and calories at their lowest. It almost because bragging rights among the girls to lead our lives like this and it was praised by our coaches too. That girl’s teeth ended up falling out because of her lifestyle and diet.”
It was after these incidents that Hanny simply burnt out and quit the sport altogether. She wanted nothing to do with it – depression and anxiety set in and she quit everything in 2010.
Hanny now leads a very different lifestyle, a philosophy she promotes through her business with partner Graham at Find Your Feet. A philosophy that focuses on sustainable and healthy living, rather than a win at all costs attitude.
But for many people, it can be very hard to nail down what healthy eating and living means for them. Once again we have mainstream media to thank for the endless contradiction and hypocrisy we see constantly filling our screens and magazine pages.
According to Hanny, it’s not a one size fits all approach and each person needs to take the time to understand their own body and what’s right for them. This I agree with entirely. I for one abhor the ‘fad diets’ you see constantly touted by people with self-interest in promoting them. There is no simple answer, just what’s right for you through research, understanding and experimentation.
Hanny adds, “You can’t just take an elite runner and replicate for all. We all have different engines, we’re all brought up differently and have different bodies. It’s about understanding your own nutrient density, as well as timing. What you eat before a run is not what you necessarily would eat after a run for example.
“Understand the science of how your body works. For the most part, your body will tell you what it wants. But it’s the age-old notion of balance. For example, honey and toast before a run is good. The brain operates on glucose, without it, the body can’t burn fats. Likewise after a run, something like toast and avocado is beneficial, good fats to help repair the membranes and cell structures post run.
“Learn to feel what’s right for you and don’t get taken in by those that profess a certain diet is the way to succeed. Question what success really is for you too. For many people, girls in particular who have suffered with eating disorders, it’s not actually about the performance – it becomes about control. Nutrition becomes the control thing and there are plenty of people, men and women living in denial about this.”
The Final Word
As I said at the beginning, I think in trail and ultra running we have a unique opportunity to dictate how we want our sport to evolve and the type of role models we want to have. People like Emelie and Hanny should be celebrated. Strong, healthy runners promoting a lifestyle choice over the ‘win at all costs’ mentality of shitty diets. A mentality that will ultimately see many more people suffer both physically and emotionally.
Coaches and people of influence in our sport have a major role to play. Promoting a balanced, healthy lifestyle is the direction our sport needs to head. We’ve seen how many other sports, cycling and track athletics for example, have placed athletes under extreme stress. But it’s ultimately for the athlete to decide. If you choose (or in many cases you don’t have the choice) to place your body under that type of duress, you will suffer the consequences later in life, like Hanny has, losing what she believes was ten years where she never really found her true potential as an athlete.
Sometimes athletes can’t make the decision, especially highly impression sixteen-year-old girls, and quite frankly shame on any coach or federation that employs these tactics. While it might be ‘the reality’ of winning, the reality of ‘life’ needs to be looked at over and above this.
We have a huge responsibility in promoting a balanced healthy lifestyle to the next generation of sporting stars – let’s not wreck their lives with a ‘win at all costs’ mentality.