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August 21, 2021 6:00 AM   Subscribe

How our female rowers ate more and triumphed : After discovering most of our top female rowers were at risk of RED-S syndrome, Rowing NZ and its coaches helped the athletes take up a challenge to eat more. The glittering results in Tokyo speak for themselves. By Suzanne McFadden for Newsroom.
posted by carolr (21 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

Everybody needs to eat, but athletes in particular, female athletes especially, can get hung up on the idea that abs and being as lean as possible are correlated with performance. When I was competing in lifting sports the double-standard was pretty gross. The "strength not abs" mantra was drummed into men, particularly in powerlifting and strongman, but women were pushed towards being lean lean lean, always under the guise of getting to a lower weight class of course. In lifting it is only better to be in a lower weight class if you can maintain the strength necessary to be competitive in it. If your stomach is getting in the way of the bar or implement and/or your weight is getting in the way of your speed and/or ability to train that's one thing, but that is not an issue for the vast majority of athletes.

ALSO if you train hard you need carbs. You DO need carbs. Keto works for weight loss and you might still see performance gains if you are starting from a low-to-medium level, but that's because you're relatively untrained and you'd make progress doing almost anything. At a certain level of training carbs are so very necessary for recovery and progress.
posted by schroedinger at 6:16 AM on August 21 [40 favorites]

female athletes especially, can get hung up on the idea

I've never been involved in any elite sport, so I'm wondering... how much has this been the athletes getting hung up, and how much has it been coaches pushing the idea? I'm reminded of I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike.
posted by clawsoon at 6:25 AM on August 21 [20 favorites]

I was on the periphery of a very similar event (flatwater canoeing) when I was a teenager for 8 or 9 years. I knew a bunch of people who were on the Canadian team, men and women. All of them were on diet plans, and the women in particular were encouraged to be strong but "lean". (Men were encouraged to be ripped, not bulky, but certainly more muscular than the women). Everyone, from the team, the juniors (<18 pre-olympians), down to the club racers was obsessed with keeping their body fat percentages as low as possible.

Many women were pretty frank that they no longer had cycles. For the elite athletes this had been true for years---from their late teens through their late twenties. It was talked about openly as a kind of bonus.

Even more, at the time, among the people I knew, a muscular woman was strongly suspected of doping. This was certainly true for many of the bulky Eastern European women of the time in that sport. Many of them had short lives after finishing competing, wracked with mysterious diseases and arthritis. They assuredly were doping in retrospect, sometimes knowingly, often not. They just took their "supplements" and "vitamins".

Putting that all together, this late 80s, early 90s mentality was that women athletes obsessed about their body fat and their shapes. They saw the halting of their cycles as necessary, even a good thing, meaning that they were in competitive shape. But no one wanted to be overly muscular, because that was "slow" and would lead to rumors that you were doping, something the Canadian team at least was proud of not doing at the time.

There were no end of coaches, nutritionists and even fellow competitors and teammates to enforce and reinforce these norms. Many calling themselves experts and authorities on kinesiology and nutrition. I don't think the team as I knew it at the time was particularly toxic either; many of these people remained friends for decades, athletes and coaches.

It's interesting to me though to see how pretty much all of what they thought had to be true, sculpting their bodies for a certain look, really decreased peak performance rather than pushed it.
posted by bonehead at 7:19 AM on August 21 [16 favorites]

This was a great read. The athletes also flagged toward the end that they're training with menstrual cycles in mind, which brought to mind some of the journalism Just Women's Sports is doing around professional athletes, training and menstrual cycles.
posted by rednikki at 8:33 AM on August 21 [13 favorites]

Thank you, rednikki, I’ve been looking for info like that! It’s so weird to me that we still don’t have programs and methods for dealing with symptoms of periods. It happens every month for millions of people across the globe. These things still seem to be handled “whisper network” style.
posted by amanda at 8:57 AM on August 21

In regards to the original article, an overall shift in women’s health from using weight as a proxy for everything would be amazingly positive. It’s so gross that coaches and teams starve athletes.
posted by amanda at 9:18 AM on August 21 [15 favorites]

how much has this been the athletes getting hung up, and how much has it been coaches pushing the idea

Both! Societal beauty standards do not go away just because you get into a sport. "Thickness" and a more muscular body type may be more acceptable, but even then there are limits. The concept of "strongfat" is just not allowed for women. If you are "thick" it is important you have curves, a stomach that does not go past your breasts, and no cellulite.

And even muscularity has a limit . . . A woman who goes on steroid cycles as proportionally hard as her male counterpart and undergoes androgenization as a result is seen as disgusting, not celebrated for being big and strong. Women still DO do steroids but overwhelmingly less aggressive ones with shorter, fewer, more spaced-out cycles, always with the eye on staying "feminine" rather than achieving maximum strength, size, and/or power. Of course, even if you stay natural it is possible to reach a level of muscularity that could be derided.

The pressure is not always equally internal and external, there are women whose coaches are pushing them to starve and women whose coaches are begging them to eat. It's all tangled up.
posted by schroedinger at 10:11 AM on August 21 [8 favorites]

I was on what might have been the shortest plumpest crew team on the US West Coast, in college, and I was very annoyed that crew divides into weight classes instead of height classes.

About how bad the training standards have been even given weight class requirements, quoting rower Kiddle:
“It used to be you ate less to stay a lightweight. But to be able to see I could eat a lot more and then train harder - and stay at the same weight - was eye-opening. It made a huge difference to the way I trained, because I could work harder.”
posted by clew at 11:28 AM on August 21 [4 favorites]

The lede is sure buried, right at the end the fact that at least two of these amazing athletes are vegetarian. That won't be popular here, red meat producers are constantly trying to associate sports performance with red meat consumption.
posted by unearthed at 4:26 PM on August 21 [3 favorites]

I rowed for a couple of years in college. My regular weight was right around the cutoff for lightweight, so I was expected to stay that weight while building muscle. This was the 1990s, so the dietary advice we got was to stick to 1200 calories a day, mainly low-fat carbs. No concern about lack of fats or protein. I ate so much dry Special K cereal. So incredibly unhealthy. I quit crew midway through my junior year and I don’t think I got my period back until several years later.
posted by Kriesa at 8:04 PM on August 21 [4 favorites]

stick to 1200 calories a day

My first response to this was shocked face 8-O isn't that a starvation diet basically??

...but then I Googled and apparently that's a number which many women have burned into their brains. This seems like a way to give yourself temporary mental and physical disabilities (and probably some permanent health problems, too).
posted by clawsoon at 10:49 PM on August 21 [8 favorites]

This is good. I didn't know it was such a big problem in rowing, but it's a big problem in running that doesn't get enough attention. On the running forums I'm really fed up with "lighter is faster!" and "How do I get my BMI down to the level of [elite runner with narrow shoulders and bones like chopsticks]?"
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:57 PM on August 21 [3 favorites]

My first response to this was shocked face 8-O isn't that a starvation diet basically??

My partner and I have been using My Fitness Pal and 1200 calories is the recommended allowance for women.
posted by Faff at 3:14 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]

My partner and I have been using My Fitness Pal and 1200 calories is the recommended allowance for women.

This made me so sad.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 4:31 AM on August 22 [7 favorites]

My partner and I have been using My Fitness Pal and 1200 calories is the recommended allowance for women.

Wait, what? According to the daily calorie requirements for a hypothetical 30 year old woman weighing 120 pounds at 5 ft 5 in height with *sedentary* lifestyle are 1600 kcal.

Where does the 1200 kcall "allowance" come from?
posted by M. at 4:59 AM on August 22 [3 favorites]

Where does the 1200 kcall "allowance" come from?

According to this article, it came from late Victorian calorie counting calculations, and was launched into popularity in America thusly:
In 1918, a doctor named Lulu Hunt Peters published Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories. It was one of the first modern diet books ever released. As the beauty ideals were changing from bosomy women with cinched waists in corsets to women with thin, slender frames in straight loose dresses, she suggested calorie counting as a way to lose weight.

Her suggestion of counting your calories now sounds ridiculously simplistic, but at the time, no one was really thinking about slices of bread in terms of calories. “For Peters, dieting demanded control and vigilance,” reads the About the Author in the 2010 edition of the book.

Eating 1,200 calories a day wasn’t just about keeping your weight under control, it was also about being patriotic: Diet and Health came out around the end of World War I, and while rationing wasn’t law, for some it was important for Americans not to hoard food “in their own anatomy.”


This book, a bestseller in both 1924 and 1925, helped popularize the diet that has in large part influenced calorie counting for nearly 100 years. “It’s one of those things that took hold, and was everywhere in the 1920s and 1930s in America, and just became the bedrock of belief about diets, but actually is wrong,” Foxcroft said.
posted by clawsoon at 5:20 AM on August 22 [13 favorites]

Diet and Health With Key to the Calories by Lulu Hunt Peters is online, I was looking into it a while ago. But even in 1918 she was aware that calorie consumption depends on activity. It says:
MAN (per day):
At rest 1800 to 2000 C.
Sedentary 2200 to 2800 C.
Working 3500 to 4000 C.

WOMAN (per day):
At rest 1600 to 1800 C.
Sedentary occupations (bookkeeper, etc.) 2000 to 2200 C.
Occupations involving standing, walking, or
manual labor (general housekeeping, etc.) 2200 to 2500 C.
Occupations requiring strength (laundress, etc.) 2500 to 3000 C.
MyFitnessPal calculates your recommended calorie intake based on goals (whether you want to gain, lose, or maintain weight), activity levels, age, sex and weight. It uses something called Mifflin St. Jeor equations to estimate your basal metabolic rate. Those seem to be:
REE [Resting Energy Expenditure] (males) = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) - 5 x age (y) + 5
REE (females) = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) - 5 x age (y) - 161.
(Note that those are for energy consumption at rest, i.e. if lying still on a couch all day. If you move you burn more.)
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:50 PM on August 22 [3 favorites]

Article: You heard stories that ‘leaner is better’.

The List of world best times in rowing show that the non-lightweight category rowers are often faster than their lightweight counterparts. The lightweight category exists to increase access to the sport; being lightweight does not seem to be an advantage.
posted by meowzilla at 8:35 PM on August 22 [1 favorite]

Excellent post... forget my abs. I can eat lol... not sure what I'm training for, but I like the advice :)

Will have some extreme dog walks as an excuse.
posted by CarolineK90 at 4:09 PM on August 23

I’ve just read Dr. Peters’ book and she did not mean to tell all women to live on 1200 calories. There isn’t just the summary of jobs and their energy demands that TheophileEscargot quotes, but a calculation that adjusts probable intake according to the reader’s height. And she has advice for people who need to gain weight.

The 1200 is probably because she mentions it as a number she was using personally to reduce in a hurry. Second moral: readers really won’t do math.
posted by clew at 4:37 PM on August 23 [1 favorite]

clew: Second moral: readers really won’t do math.

Even engineers can't be expected to do math.
posted by clawsoon at 5:48 PM on August 23

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