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Coach vs. the Dieting Athlete

In many sports, it is considered beneficial to achieve a leaner body composition for locomotive efficiency — in other words, the less you weigh, the easier it is to move your body. Within the sport of triathlon, triathletes are not immune to this mindset and will often manipulate the diet in order to achieve a lower body fat percentage. Although there are safe and healthy ways to change body composition, triathletes can be very rigid and inflexible with their thoughts and actions. When a driven, perfectionistic, competitive, achievement-oriented triathlete is constantly exposed to diet discussions, advertisements, articles, endorsements and images on social media, a general interest in weight loss may manifest into an unhealthy obsession.

With so many ways to enhance performance and to optimize health, two of the most popular sought-after strategies by athletes include diet and body composition changes. When done correctly, performance may improve. However, it’s not uncommon for athletes to engage in unhealthy weight control methods, resulting in great emotional and physical consequences. Whether for aesthetics, competitive leanness, body dissatisfaction or in pursuit of an ideal “race weight,” athletes often place unrealistic expectations on performance and their bodies. What may start as an innocent attempt to lean-up or to lose a few pounds, can easily spiral out of control, undermining health, training, recovery, performance and mental well-being.

Earlier this year, I was asked to contribute an article to the USAT Performance Coaching Newsletter - an educational newsletter provided to all USA Triathlon coaches. For the month of June, the USAT Performance Coaching Newsletter was dedicated to nutrition. As we all know, for optimal performance, nutrition is just as important as training. For triathlon coaches, it is important that you are familiar with nutrition guidelines and recommendations as well as understanding how to effectively speak to your athletes about nutrition and body image.

If you are a coach, you have a responsibility to take care of your athlete - physically, emotionally and mentally.

When your athlete feels pressure to achieve a leaner body composition, an increased fascination with nutrition, body fat, weight and calories can develop into an unhealthy group of eating behaviors called disordered eating. Typical disordered eating behaviors include obsessive counting calories, clean eating, carrying out food rituals, fasting, avoiding sport nutrition products, having an off-limit food list, or avoiding certain foods or food groups for non-medical reasons.

If you are concerned that your athlete may have an unhealthy relationship with food and the body, start the conversation with a non-judgmental tone in order to make your athlete feel safe and cared about. Making it clear that you care about your athlete’s health and well-being, you may say, “I’m worried about you because I’ve noticed that you are struggling to complete your workouts lately.” You may also say, “you’ve been experiencing a lot of injuries/sicknesses lately. It may be best to consult with a professional to make sure you can adapt to your upcoming training load.”

The most common precipitating factor in the development of an eating disorder is dieting. What starts as a well-intentioned diet plan, slowly transforms into skipping meals, undereating, removing specific foods or entire food groups from the diet and sacrificing calories before and after workouts. An eating disorder is a serious psychiatric condition that affects all types of individuals. Eating disorders are complex and multifactorial. Interestingly, athletes are at higher risk for an eating disorder compared to the rest of the population. A disciplined, goal-oriented athlete can be guilty of chasing perfectionism. Feeling great pressure to succeed, restricting food can become an easy way to exert control. Constantly pushing the body to the limits, athletes don’t realize how much food and fluids are needed for training. Lastly, many athletes believe that leanness is an essential factor in improving performance. With these realities in mind, it’s not difficult to understand why so many athletes suffer from eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors.

With several different genetic and socio-cultural triggers, risk factors for an eating disorder include dieting, need for control, weight stigma, body dissatisfaction, perfectionism, anxiety, biochemical imbalances, traumatic life events, behavior inflexibility, nutrition misinformation, low self-esteem, and being teased or bullied. With a strong stigma behind eating disorders, it’s important to show support to those who are struggling and to emphasize that help is available.

As a coach, routinely remind your athletes that optimizing performance should not require excessive training and restrictive eating. Resorting to destructive methods of manipulating body composition will only sabotage performance and health.

Pay attention to any warning signs that your athlete may be eating too little and training too hard. Fatigue, anemia, compromised bone health, hormonal imbalances, hair loss, notable weight loss, lack of energy, a decline in muscle mass and strength, mood changes, amenorrhea, restless sleep, and overuse injuries are common signs of an energy imbalance. Inadequate caloric intake relative to energy expenditure (RED-S) will result in extra stress on the body – increasing the risk for injury, sickness and burnout. 

Encourage athletes to maintain healthy training and eating behaviors that will favor long-term health and longevity in sport. It’s encouraged to partner with a Board Certified Sport Dietitian to provide effective, safe and personalized nutrition advice to athletes. If you are concerned about an athlete’s weight or health, a Board Certified Sport Dietitian can counsel athletes who are struggling with the physical and emotional consequences of dieting.

As a coach, how much emphasis do you place on body image? Do you often talk about weight loss, body fat or dietary trends to your athletes? Body composition is a sensitive and personal issue yet far too many coaches share an overvalued belief with their athletes that a lower body weight will improve performance. Inadvertently, you may be placing your own values and attitudes regarding weight, dieting and body image on your athletes. As a coach, you should never assume that reducing body fat or weight will enhance the performance of your athlete. Every athlete has his/her own optimum performance weight where the body functions the best and this body type is achieved through consistent training, nutritious eating and proper fueling and hydration. Acknowledge an athlete’s strengths beyond the physical, for athletes are more than just a look. Making remarks about body composition and performance can trigger or exacerbate disordered eating thoughts and behaviors. Don’t be the coach who makes stereotypical assumptions about the ideal body type for athletic greatness.

As a coach, use your power and authority. In today’s fad-diet, body image obsessed society, it can be difficult for athletes to keep a healthy perspective on body image. Help your athlete understand the importance of maintaining a healthy body composition – even if that image doesn’t look like the idealized image seen on social media. Protect the physical and psychological well-being of your athletes by discouraging dieting and enforcing health and performance-promoting eating habits.

Extreme nutrition habits are extremely trendy while discussions of health are lacking. Be a role model and encourage your athletes to care for their mental and physical health. Eating is not cheating. Meeting daily nutritional needs and supporting training sessions with proper sport nutrition is a necessary component of athletic success, and it keeps sport fun and health-promoting.

My article can be found in the 2019 June issue of the USAT Performance Coaching Newsletter.