Triathletes and eating disorders: what’s the link?

In endurance sport, it’s often believed that the lighter you are, the faster you are, which can lead to over-controlled diets and eating disorders. Tim Heming explores the link…

We explain the link between endurance athletes and eating disorders.Credit:  cristinairanzo/Getty cristinairanzo/getty

When Shane Sutton admits in a recent BBC documentary that he told Jess Varnish to “lose some timber,” he delivers the line unapologetically. With a lens on the culture of British Cycling, it’s clear Sutton enjoyed his enforcer role as technical director because the way he wielded power reaped results. Brits won gold. The stereotypical brash Aussie did his job.


In this particular clip, Sutton denies he told European track champion Varnish to “go and have a baby”, as has been alleged; the blunt comment about weight was instead just his honest opinion. Sutton is now removed from his post as Dave Brailsford’s successor, but the 60-year-old won’t flex in showing contrition because his role was pivotal in securing millions of pounds of funding and protecting the jobs of those colleagues he inspires – or intimidates – depending on your view.

In the same documentary, Brailsford too, told of his fears for elite sport going soft, further underlining that British Cycling’s hard-line approach had little wiggle room for empathy.

Unfortunately, it’s a myopic long-term vision. When power-to-weight ratios are the overriding concern, and it comes to telling athletes that they need to ‘shed timber’, there likely registers a human cost. We know this because we see it too often; a throwaway remark the catalyst to a chain reaction of destructive behaviours.

Not just a cycling problem

It’s also particularly pernicious in endurance sport where evidence without context might suggest ‘lighter is faster.’ The problem being that ‘lighter’ also tends to sway toward malnourishment and a propensity for injury, and, in the long term, gripping mental addictions and a perilous relationship with food.

Thankfully, Sutton’s approach to weight management is largely seen as archaic in 2017, not least because body fat is the bluntest of tools by which to measure performance. Yet despite the oafishness, demonising any individual is largely unhelpful because while coach education has improved inordinately, the notion of disordered eating can be unfathomable to even the most well-intentioned mind. A crass comment might trigger a latent propensity for individuals to restrict their diet, but it can never be the whole problem. And sometimes it has little to do with a coach at all.

“I’m 20 years old and I have never had a period. I’m 20 years old and I have osteoporosis. I’m 20 years old and I have become ‘that girl’,” began Bobby Clay, a promising national-standard middle distance runner, in a recent interview with Athletics Weekly. “[I was] the girl who over-trained. The girl who under-fuelled. The girl who we are all told about, yet we all just believe ‘it won’t happen to me.’”

Four times in one paragraph she uses the term ‘I wanted’ as she speaks of her athletic ambitions; explaining that her coach tried to limit her insatiable desire to achieve greatness at speed. Despite advice from her coach, parents, and doctors, food in her training group “became the enemy”, and although she denies having an eating disorder, she twisted narratives in her mind – the slimmest chance that she might be a late physical developer seized upon as justification for not addressing her excessive training load.

In the past year she believes there has been just four weeks when she has not suffered with a bone fracture. Hormone Replacement Therapy drugs are being used to redress the balance and she finishes with a plea that she will be the last to become ‘that girl’.

Clay deserves every bit of the praise she has received for this honesty. Her words will have more impact than she’ll ever fully realise, but, sadly, she will not be the last ‘that girl’.


Holly Lawrence, the 2016 world Ironman 70.3 champion, also denied she had an eating disorder in a recent candid Instagram post, but the Welsh triathlete did explain how her relationship with food became skewed to the detriment of her performance this year. As so often the case, it started with injury.


2/2 By the time I got to Worlds I felt like a total fraud- I wasn’t sure how much I could even run, my foot was semi-under control but totally unknown. The last couple months involved failling bike workouts, not only was I getting too precious about nailing bike workouts to compensate for not being able to run, but I wasn’t fueling enough to hit my sessions properly because I focussed too much on body weight. Race day I had THE WORST swim of my life – I couldn’t fake it, I’d lost my swim strength, the bike didn’t get much better and I just didn’t have anything. I was emotionally drained and didn’t have the fight in me. I’m saying this because I believe I have a duty to all my followers to show both sides of the story, not just the picture perfect images from Instagram. I had pro athletes even asking what I was doing – what nutritionist I was working with, as If to give tips! I honestly felt so bad and reached out to those people after to explain my end whether they wanted it or not- and now I want to for my followers too. In a sport where people care too much about weight, when really it’s matters who swim-bike-runs the fastest and not fighting what makes you, you. For me it was only a matter of a few kilograms but I can see how this can start in anybody and maybe people need to be a bit more switched on about what they say. Body fat does not necessarily correlate to fitness! I raced all season (winning!!) at a normal weight for me and I didn’t need to change anything, yes injury sucks but you can’t just lose weight and expect to get faster- it doesn’t happen (and didn’t!)! I’m proud to be back to my normal self, healthy body, and end the season on a high even though not at peak fitness! I’m now so excited to get rolling for next year! Bring on 2018! Again thank you to everyone who continues to follow me and support me