If you have followed my blog for a while you will know I am not impartial to the odd rant or rabble about x, y, or z – and if you are new, well good luck! But hey as Christmas is coming thought it was about time for another one on a topic close to my heart and really gets me going.
Emilie Forsberg, a World Champion sky runner, wrote a very good blog on being confronted about not looking like an “athlete” last year – link. After being told the very same thing a few weeks ago at a dinner party as I was, dare I say, eating ice cream it sparked another round of thinking that I am going to share with you now. And before you say anything, don’t worry I didn’t go into a full discussion at the time, just reached for another scoop of ice cream and smiled #YOLO.
So what does an athlete look like?
Lets start by imagining what you think a wrestler, triathlete, swimmer, marathon runner or shot-putter looks like. You don’t hold just one imagine in your head do you? No! That is because athletes come in all shapes and sizes – even across genders there are big differences in athletic build. And why is this? Because to be at top performance a body takes the shape it needs to be to perform at its best, no point a shot putter looking like a marathon runner and vice versa as that will not be optimal for the end goal, performance. So in answer to this question, it depends.
Do you know the story?
If you meet an athlete after their winter break and again the day of their A race, they will look very different. This is because their story is different. It is a known fact that it is healthy to gain a bit of weight in the off season to reduce the risk of injury and illness, especially following a year of pushing your body and health to the limit. The aim to be perfect all year round is unsustainable, as like I have said before your body is not a machine and it will come a time it just says no – whether you want to admit it or not. I am one to know that if you do not turn it off you can never turn it on, creating a straight line of satisfaction, lack of progression and/or persistent injury cycles.
Furthermore, you do not know what that individual is struggling with internally; whether it be an injury, lack of self-confidence or an illness. What if that individual was just eager for success, commenting on what they don’t look like could spark a round of thoughts and obsessions with how they should look like to be successful. Once this seed is planted and starts becoming re-enforced, whether by performance or further comments, it is very hard to override and can take even more extreme forms, such as an eating disorder. That, I might add, will lead to anything but performance. Yes, that individual may not have been in a vulnerable place at the time but their drive for excellence pushed them into one. Isobel Pooley, the former British high jump record holder spoke out about this recently – worth a read – link.
So be aware of the story as making a judgement at any one given time does not make it fact. Generalisation by definition is general not personal, and in performance sport you have to work at the personal level not the general one.
Is that athlete successful?
Ok yes, it has taken me a while to get to this belief and yes, I have taken a few minor (major!) detours to arrive at this point of view but thanks to some amazing mentors in my life I do believe that after all the correct training twinned with the optimal nutrition strategy and sufficient rest, my body will take the form it needs to perform at it’s best. Plus I have to allow for the fact this shape will change overtime. Yes some athletes on the start line may look “better” or “stronger” than you but if you can perform day in day out to your best it should not matter, and hey any “-er” word is subjective and therefore shouldn’t be trusted as fact.
Furthermore, Triathlon is not a subjective sport, results not looks define you. I am not sure about you, but I don’t remember the girls on race morning that make me feel lesser as they have the perfect six pack, are uber toned and are racking the latest TT bike, no – I remember who won. The old mentality of weight and the perfect “athletic” physique is damaging as from a young age it creates the illusion that lighter is faster, leaner is better and looks count. I am not denying it doesn’t impact performance but much less than we are all made to believe when we sift through social media and magazines. Those pictures, articles and stories fail to point out there is a point of diminishing returns and that we are all different.
Yes, what a thought you may be stronger and faster 2kgs heavier than Sally next to you, but if it means you are in for a chance of beating and racing Sally it does not matter. I do think that often athletes, even though it is slowly evolving/waking up, never really let themselves find their REAL “racing” weight as they always force their bodies towards the lighter version of themselves due to the intrinsic belief we are brought up with, see and live by; lighter is faster. If you still need convincing a recent article published by Runner’s World about a top college runner; Rachel Schulist, outlines this perfectly – link.
So what now to focus on Eloise?
Well, I am sure you can all agree consistent, quality training is a much more effective way to get those performance benefits than a marginal gain that comes with reducing weight unnaturally. Also don’t forget that marginal gain may only be temporary as your body may not agree to it and you will only get faster to a point.
Phew -for your sakes and mine its over! You can now go back to that mince pie and mulled wine with less guilt as in the words of Oscar Wilde “everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Lastly, never forget that underneath the athlete there is a person and that person is the most important part to longterm athletic success.
Happy Christmas and always keep smiling,
Lots of love,