Elite. Winning. but Deteriorating
I was in the best shape of my life. Racing at the highest level as an Elite Obstacle Course Spartan Athlete. I was sticking to my own programming using VO2max, anaerobic threshold, and endurance training to increase my running ability. I was using strength and power training combined with work capacity training to increase my strength to mass ratio. I was sticking to an extremely clean diet. I felt invincible.
And then I felt a little twinge in my foot.
Not a lot of pain, just a weird ache after hard runs, or long runs.
And it didn’t go away.
Being an athlete, and not listening to the advice I would have given an athlete, I ignored the growing pain. But I applied ice as a therapy after training, thinking that surely ice would make it ALLLLL better.
During a two day race in North Carolina, I was running over sloppy and muddy terrain, dirt clods and thick sod made each step a dicey maneuver. I rolled my foot on a large mud mound, and immediately my foot felt “off”. But of course, there was no way I wasn't going to finish the race. I finished, eagerly smiling while head to toe covered in mud, gathering my medal and finisher photos….. While in excruciating pain. My foot never experienced a “pop”, “snap”, or “crack”. But, on that day, I had made the navicular bone in my foot two completely separate pieces. I didn’t even know it. I “rested”, and took 10 weeks off running, but swam and cycled and lifted, along with doing non-running interval training. I climbed a 14,000ft peak (Pikes Peak with the Manitous Incline) and logged 22 miles on the broken foot. I climbed the Manitou incline with a 15kg sandbag nonstop with the broken foot. And I placed second at the Fort Carson Elite Obstacle Course Race, on the broken foot- and up until the race, barely running at all. But I was training, hard.
So, where did I go wrong?
How did my foot break so “gracefully”?
Being an athlete, I cared so much about performance that I forgot- no, I neglected- HEALTH. Wati, you say? How can an elite athlete not be the epitome of health?
The broken foot was the result of teeny tiny little choices, driven by a focus on performance.
I was eating so clean, but not taking in enough calories to support my training volume
My nutrition density, well, wasn’t dense. I was not taking in enough fats.
Not enough calories, and not enough fat is a recipe for disaster for any endurance athlete - even short distance or high intensity sport related athletes.
The body needs fuel - to perform work, and to recover and adapt from the stress that we put it through in training. If not enough fuel is available, the body will break down slowly, and it will rob other metabolic processes of function in order to fuel the training that we undertake. The role of fat is multifaceted, but for training related purposes, it allows the absorption of calcium, and vitamins A,E,D,and K. Without fat, calcium is not absorbed into bones very well. Additionally, fat is essential in the production and regulation of estrogen, which is an essential hormone in bone health. And in females, essential to reproductive function and menstruation.
So, putting all the pieces together… not enough kcals, and not enough fat = injury. In my case, a stress fracture that led to a full on separation of a bone. No matter how good an athlete is, health needs to come first. And that choice, in an athletes’ mind, is very difficult, As a female athlete, nutrition, training, and the menstrual cycle are all interrelated. Let me share the science - and using myself as evidence- that the balancing act of performance needs to be secondary to the priority of health.
The experiences I have had align with what the science says. In the following series, I will be breaking down Training and Performance Women. These principles are directed primarily towards the nutrition necessary for females, training periodization based upon the menstrual cycle, and injuries associated with less than optimal training practices.
There are several differences that cause female endurance athletes to respond and adapt to training differently than our male counterparts. The biggest factor is the role of estrogen for females vs the role of testosterone for males. After puberty, females experience an increase in the production of and the cycling of estrogen, not to mention progesterone, luteinizing hormone (LH), and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). I will address these hormones later. Estrogen plays a vital role in female physiology both for an athlete and as a human being:
Endometrial and uterine growth
Preparation for pregnancy, thickening of vaginal wall
Menstrual cycle functioning
Salt and water retention
The last bullet the focus point. A lack of estrogen causes and increased risk of osteoporosis. With a large training volume, if there is an inadequate concentration of estrogen, bones weakened and this increases the risk of stress fracture. Simultaneously, a reduction in estrogen causes amenorrhea, otherwise known as menstrual irregularity or loss of the menstrual cycle.
SO MANY QUESTIONS!!
Next Post with answer the question: HOW DOES ONE BECOME LOW IN ESTROGEN?