Discipline vs Disorder

Looking ‘right’ for your sport. Being a girl can be hard work, but being an athlete can be even harder. Often, the sport you’ve chosen demands certain skills, strengths and talents, but the one thing that most sports have in common is that an ‘ideal’ body type is desired.

We all know about body shape stereotypes: swimmers are tall, have huge shoulders & long limbs; gymnasts are small and muscular; track cyclists have big strong glutes and legs; endurance runners are light and lean. This is because these body types tend to be best suited to the particular demands of the sport – our morphology (body shape, limb length) and our physiology (heart, lungs, muscle fibre type etc) combines to make us the athlete we are and we can’t do much to change that!

When you look ‘right’ for the sport you’re devoting all your time to, then you might feel less pressure to eat in a particular way. So what happens when you don’t look like you should? Does that matter? Would you be a better runner/rider/diver if you weighed less? Changed your body composition? The answer is yes, and no.

Average and elite. Our weight is the combined mass of everything we have: the useful and the less useful components of our body. Our cells are made mostly of water, and they are differentiated by what makes up the rest of the tissue they become – bone, muscle, ligaments and tendons, hair, teeth, organs etc.

As a general rule, our subcutaneous body fat is not useful for any sport where movement against gravity is required. That’s why elite runners, cyclists, dancers and gymnasts are usually very lean. Of course, the ‘average’ young woman is very different from an elite athlete. We choose a lifestyle or a sport and often our goals are performance based, at the expense of our health, let alone meeting the expectations placed on young women in general.

Hungry, cranky and irritable – but it worked! When I wanted to lose weight in the lead up to the Australian Road cycling championships, I sought the advice of a qualified nutritionist. The Nationals is a 110km road race held in January in the middle of the day. It involves 10 laps of a circuit with a 3km climb, and I was already at a disadvantage, being taller and heavier than most other riders in the country. She gave me many helpful suggestions on how to decrease the calories and fat in my diet, but was quick to remind me that that this strategy was for event preparation only, NOT a long term plan for healthy eating. It was really, really hard. I was hungry all the time, pretty cranky and irritable. I got to a weight that was still in a healthy range for me, and I performed very well in the race.

For me, being very lean was a struggle, but for other women in my experience, ‘disordered eating’ is a normal way of life.

The side effects you don’t want. I have had teammates whose parents or coaches have played a role in creating a fear of weight gain, or an unhealthy attitude to their body image. The tricky part is: being lighter, often leads to better results. We can easily ‘forget’ about the side effects of being undernourished and having low oestrogen. But these can be very dangerous and impact on our life significantly: Amenorrhoea (absence of menstrual periods), low bone density and stress fractures (a syndrome that was referred to as Female Athlete Triad); poor immune system; predisposition to injuries; emotional stress; depression and anxiety; social phobia and/or a fear of eating in public… all these things can creep up on you (or your friends) as they seek better athletic performances.

The key is to understand when it is discipline and when it becomes a disorder. Your coach, sports psychologist, teammates and family members might notice it before you do. Always seek expert opinion from a qualified nutritionist when you want to lose weight, inform those around you that it’s part of a training plan and be sure to keep check on whether your mental health and physical performance are being sacrificed to lose skinfolds.

Dr Bridie O’Donnell


  • sportsmad

    Great article. Very good insights into the challenges of being an elite athlete and Bridie, as I know from my own daughters, you can’t avoid those all-important body awareness issues for young women who just want to play sport to keep fit and look good. Keep it up.

    • Thanks a lot, and I think a lot of young men have difficulties here too. 

      • sportsaddict

        I agree, let’s not forget the young men. Same issue, same pressures, it must be such a complex equation to get right for all.

  • sportsaddict

    Bridie, it’s fantastic to have a feature from someone that is so experienced and has lived though these things on a daily basis. Do you ever help the younger girls with advice? Can we see some more features from you please?

    • I’ll be writing a whole series of features for Sportstar, so am happy to take feedback about what you want to hear about too!