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Disordered Eating in Pro Cycling| My Experiences
Are you even a pro-cyclist if you haven’t had some sort of disordered eating?
Are you even a pro-cyclist if you haven’t had some sort of disordered eating?
There are some harsh realities that come with trying to make it as a pro-cyclist. You’ll be suffering on a daily basis and you’ll probably crash a bit too. You’ll have to skip “normal life” things and you’ll almost certainly have disordered eating to boot.
Wait, what?! You’ll almost certainly have some sort of disordered eating? Yeah, that’s the harsh truth. Professional cycling is a watts per kilogram game. You can pay attention to the watts side of that equation, but you have to look at the kilograms side too.
You need some sort of disordered eating to be successful in this game.
What a fucked thing to say, but I just said it. It’s almost certainly an unpopular opinion, and there are probably people angrily rushing to the comments to claim: “You can’t say that”. No, it’s not ideal, and no it’s not good for youngsters to hear. But, it is the harsh truth.
To clarify, let’s look at the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating.
Eating disorders are serious, complex and potentially life-threatening mental illnesses. They are characterised by disturbances in behaviours, thoughts and attitudes to food, eating, and body weight or shape.
Disordered eating sits on a spectrum between normal eating and an eating disorder and may include symptoms and behaviours of eating disorders, but at a lesser frequency or lower level of severity. Disordered eating may include restrictive eating, compulsive eating, or irregular or inflexible eating patterns. Dieting is one of the most common forms of disordered eating.
[Definitions according to National Eating Disorder Collaborations Australia]
In my first year U23, I had little focus on weight. I was racing for Madison-Genesis and the British racing culture doesn’t have a weight obsession, we prefer to get as aero as possible. Moving to France changed that forever, and I guess I’ve had some sort of eating problem ever since.
Now, I’m not saying that I’ve got an eating disorder, far from it. I do have disordered eating though.
I feel my relationship with food is in a good place, especially compared to some of my peers. In the past, I have briefly debated putting my fingers down my throat to puke up after I’ve binged junk food though.
I’m not one of those guys that’s looking naturally lean. It’s rare that my veins are popping and I’ve had chubby cheeks since I was young. I think my chipmunk cheeks are kinda cute, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve been self conscious about them at times.
Whether it be a little comment here, or a DS grabbing your stomach there, the importance of weight is constantly reiterated to you on the rocky road to the top. The media often reports that Rider X has dropped a few kilograms and is now going better than ever. Then there’s Manager Y ridiculing one of their riders for not being light enough in the next article.
Within weeks of arriving in Chambery, just weeks after my nineteenth birthday, I was advised that I could lose somewhere between four and six kilograms AND maintain my time trial power. For reference, I was sitting at 66kg at the time, so the higher end of that scale would see me losing 10% of my overall body weight. Bit of a reach, right?
That same year, we’d have skinfolds taken on a six to eight week basis. These would be compiled into a spreadsheet against the rest of the team and the DS would call you into the office to tell you that you could lose weight.
I took their word for it and set about getting to their target weight. The lightest I got to, under relatively close supervision was 63.9kg. To this day, I think it is the best that I’ve ever climbed and I was able to go head-to-head with climbers such as Alex Baudin in our climbing tests at camp.
However, I wasn’t able to replicate it on race day and very quickly became sick. It was probably the unhappiest I’ve ever been too. Coincidence? I think not.
I remember once having my BMI checked and being classed as “Healthy”, I looked left on the chart and did the maths as to how much weight I’d have to lose to be classed as “Underweight”, because that’s a badge of honour, right?
If you want to make a pro-cyclists day, tell them that they’re looking lean. They’ll fob you off but they will be smiling inside. Never ever tell a pro-cyclist they look like they can lose some timber. They will lose sleep.
There are so many inside, relatively sick, jokes in the pro-cycling world that act as coping strategies. All in good faith, I’ve heard putting your fingers down the throat to puke be referred to as “pressing the lean button”.
How Do The Pros Manage?
At the top of the sport, there are hundreds of thousands of euros pumped into research that aids the top riders. I heard that the Jumbo-Visma staff analyse their rider’s files from training and racing before portioning exactly how much food they can have. While I cannot confirm that story, it would not surprise me.
Calorie tracking is something that a lot of pros do. Whether it be using MyFitnessPal or similar, if you have the mental fortitude and accountability it is the best method for tracking your weight. I did once see a close friend of mine bring a mini-scale out to La Fabrica and weigh half of the cookie he ordered. Is that over the top? Yes. Was he doing some of his best ever climbing performances shortly after? Yes.
You also hear stories about riders abusing certain (legal?) drugs to suppress appetite or increase fat burning potential. Like always, these are only rumours but I would be very surprised if they weren’t true.
Alex Dowsett was a World Tour Pro for donkey’s years. With a couple of Grand Tour Stages, an Hour Record and a bucket load of National Titles to his name, it’s fair to say he was pretty handy. Alex has been a mentor figure for me since I was in the junior ranks, and has always closely guided me to not obsess about nutrition due to his personal experiences.
In a recent YouTube video on his channel, he spoke about his nutrition habits as a pro:
Professional cycling will always be a weight dependent sport, and there is nothing wrong with that. Within reason, the lighter you are, the faster you will go. It is a high performance environment and cutting through all the politically correct bullshit, you have to do some stupid stuff at the top. [Cannot wait until someone suggests I’m referencing doping with that statement.]
To be at the top end of any sport an athlete has to have obsessive behaviour, this is no different. There are times that if you want to perform, then you have to eat less, you have to be hungry. I know that’s not the best thing to say, but it’s the truth.
I would love to work closely with a world class nutritionist on a daily basis to see the results. How could I tweak my food and diet to both become lighter and more effective on the bike? For the level I’d want to do it at, with someone constantly looking over my shoulder, it would get very very expensive. It would be a fun project though.
With all that said and done, there is a beautiful irony about weight which will never fail to make me smile. The more you stress about it, the harder it is to get lean. This past winter, I’ve not really cared about weight, my skinfolds are lower than ever. *Smug Face*
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