I would rather have skipped the Olympics and been happy than be able to say I’m an Olympian forever"
Q&A with Jip Vastenburg
Jip Vastenburg is a former elite athlete and eternal Olympian (Rio 2016, 10,000 metres), whose highs in sport include being crowned the U23 European Champion (5,000 meters) and finishing fourth in the senior European 10,000 meters. Venturing into the challenging realm of marathons, Jip made the leap to join the esteemed New Balance Manchester team, a move that not only elevated her own athletic career but equipped her with a profound understanding of the sport.
Jip now shares a wealth of knowledge gleaned from her own experiences, including with RED-S, in her role as a coach for other aspiring athletes. Project RED-S guest writer, Katherine Grayson, catches up with Jip to share a powerful, but often overlooked, message that no accolade is worth endangering your health and that regaining a happy, healthy relationship with sport is possible at any level of performance.
Was there a specific moment in your experience of RED-S that made you recognise something had to change?
For me, it was the 2016 Olympic Games. My "stress bucket" was really full during the years before, but the Olympics tipped it over. I finished my race, and my body was so empty. I’m the biggest sports fan ever, and I didn’t watch a single event. I just felt empty and depressed, which was a real wake-up call for me. I was on the biggest sports stage that I’d dreamt of since 2004, standing on a table with a flag, and that’s how I felt. It made me realise that this was not how you’re supposed to do sport; it had nothing to do with sport anymore.
I would rather have skipped the Olympics and been happy than be able to say I’m an Olympian forever. I was 21 when I competed, but there's another 60 years after that! Those 60 years aren’t worth giving up on for one moment in time. Your health is so much more important than anything you might achieve.
What would you say to others who are struggling to admit to themselves that they might be suffering from a condition like RED-S?
My advice is to definitely find somebody trusted to talk to. It doesn't have to be a person who’s very close to you, because sometimes that doesn't feel safe. It could be a psychologist, a friend, or somebody on your team; just seek help because expressing your feelings might help you accept that you may have problem, and that you can get support. I think even just writing your thoughts really helps.
When I came out with my story in 2019, a lot of girls messaged me, saying how they recognised my feelings and struggled too. I thought that was a good step and I encouraged them to find someone to talk to, because then it’s not a lonely battle anymore. I was really, really good at hiding things but if I'd expressed how I felt, it would have made things a lot easier.
You’ve spoken about the impact coaches can have on athletes as well as the positive impact of working with Grete Koens and Steve Vernon in the past. What would you like to say to all coaches who are working with young athletes?
Coaches need to be really careful about how they address things like weight. I know running is a sport where, ultimately, we have to go from A to B in the fastest way possible, but little comments about weight can be so damaging. When I was 14, someone told me that if I ran 100k a week, I would lose my "puppy fat". Comments like that sound like, "You’re too fat now, but if you run more, that will disappear".
When I was younger, we’d also measure our fat percentage with everyone around. Why would you do that? At that age, you’re so influenced by what your peers are doing. It created a culture of believing that the less you weigh, the faster you can go. A lot of coaches think that’s the only way to get faster, but it isn’t; it’s about getting stronger.
How did it feel to transition into a more positive environment?
It made such a big difference. The coach I switched to, Grete [Koens], was very aware of subjects like RED-S; she understood the science behind it and knew that me not having a period wasn’t a good thing. I made huge progress under her guidance and then moved on to Steve [Vernon], who was super open too. He created a group environment where it’s very safe to talk about these things. I still struggle, and I’m not going to deny that, but I can express myself when it’s happening. I can talk about those demons in my head, and that’s so important.
Other external factors, like social media, can play a significant role in reinforcing negative behaviours around body image. How do you use social media in a healthy way?
I follow a lot of athletes who have come out with how they feel [about issues of weight] and are very inspiring to me, like Stephanie Bruce and Emily Infeld. More and more athletes are now sharing healthy messages, which makes it easier, but if I know someone struggles with an eating disorder or looks really, really skinny, I don’t follow them. I just can’t. I can’t look at them because it’s a trigger and gets into my head. As soon as I start racing again, I’ll step off social media and really try to avoid it.
What have you learned about what constitutes an "athletic aesthetic"?
There are so many different builds and accepting your body and what is normal for you is so important. I’m six feet tall; I’m never going to be tiny. When I was competing in the 2014 Europeans, I was much lighter, but now I have ten times the strength. In the beginning, it was really difficult because I felt like I only had confirmation that I could run fast when I was so light. But, I saw a psychologist after the 2016 Olympics, and it was so radical to learn that I can run fast with this healthy body. When negative thoughts come up, I hold on to that knowledge.
For someone who struggles to picture recovering a healthy relationship with food, how do you feel about food now compared to how you felt a few years ago?
Well, now I can go into a coffee shop and have a frappuccino, and I think, "Wow. Ten years ago, I would go to a coffee shop and have a cappuccino, and I couldn’t even touch the cookie beside it". Now I can sit here, having fun with my friends and enjoy a nice drink. Ten years ago, I would never have imagined I could do that.
Being so happy now makes me realise how unhappy I was back then. Now, I’ve got amazing people around me, and I can actually enjoy sport again. I can enjoy going to a restaurant with my parents too! Ten years ago, Christmas was a nightmare; now I can enjoy it. Small things like that have changed my whole life.
Do you think you’ll ever feel that your experience with RED-S is totally behind you?
I don’t think I’ll ever be 100% recovered, but I’ve made my peace with that. Every day I learn more about myself—more about what works for me and what doesn't. And I'm okay with that. I've been in a really, really, bad place before, and I'm not there anymore. I'm so happy about that!
Running is still really important to me, but there’s so much more to life. My mindset switched little by little after the Olympics, and it took me four or five years to really get out of it. Now it's a journey for me to just keep improving. I’m excited for that journey, but will I ever get to 100%? I don’t know, but that’s okay. If I know how to stay happy, for me, that’s enough.
And when you’re in a good place, feeling happy and healthy, what is it that you love about running?
Being in the zone and feeling amazingly strong makes you feel like you can tackle the whole world! The sense of having that power within yourself is, I think, what humans seek in the world, and we can find that through running. For me, that’s the best feeling there is.