Q&A with Olympian Laura Weightman

Tags: Athlete Advice, athlete Q&A, Female, Supporter AdviceRead time: 10mins

Laura Weightman is a two-time Olympian, multiple European and Commonwealth medallist (1500m and 5000m), former British road mile record holder (4.17.6), and the 3rd fastest British female of all time over 5000m (14:35.44). Having maintained world-class performances for well over a decade, Laura knows a thing or two about striking the balance in sport. She sits down to chat with Project RED-S writer, Katherine Grayson, to share her thoughts on success, support and the importance of always having a snack in your bag.

How prevalent do you think RED-S is within the elite sports community?

RED-S is more prevalent than people realise. It’s a spectrum, and I think people focus on the ‘red zone’ of that spectrum: someone who has an eating disorder, for example, or a bone fracture. But you don’t have to be in that category to have RED-S. We need to capture athletes at the onset of symptoms, whether that’s thinking ‘my body doesn't look right’ or ‘I need to lose weight to run faster,’ or an issue with periods or getting a few injuries. We need to recognise the early signs rather than waiting until athletes are in that red zone: the sooner we can address some of these issues, the sooner athletes can be in a healthier and happier state.

I’ve been around many athletes who have suffered with RED-S, and I’ve seen the consequences. It's becoming more acceptable to say that you’re struggling with RED-S, just like you suffer from an injury, but we still need more awareness and information. That’s why I wanted to be an ambassador for Project RED-S: signposting to the right support is absolutely critical. If I can be a positive role model and help one athlete then that’s a job well done!

We know how easily athletes can become consumed by their sports career. How have you managed to maintain a balance between running and the rest of your life?

I've often struggled with being ‘Laura the athlete’. When you're a professional athlete, that's how you're identified: people forget the person behind the runner. Over the years, I’ve consciously tried to have separation in my life: when I'm at work I’m at work, and when I'm not at work I switch off. I'm really proud of my career and everything I’ve achieved, and I love being Laura the runner, but it's important for athletes to remember that there’s so much more to them than their job. When you have happiness in both areas of your life, the professional and the personal, they really complement each other. When you go all in on the athlete, and sacrifice yourself as a person, that's when issues can come into play.

I haven't found it easy. I've worked hard to have that balance and contentment in my life. I know that I give 110% to my job every single day, but just like anyone else, athletes have days where we don't perform. It's about knowing that your career as an athlete doesn't define you, and I surround myself with people who see me as Laura first and an athlete second.

How have you distanced yourself from the disordered eating behaviours that you’ve witnessed?

I think a lot of it comes back to my family and upbringing. I’m one of five children and from a very early age mealtimes were always together. It was a real social, fun time: there were occasions when we’d all cut cards for the last slice of cheesecake. It was all about homemade, balanced meals and food was there to be celebrated, to be enjoyed; it was never something that was a reward or that had to be earned.

When I started running, I used to train on a Monday night. I’d come in from school, have my tea at five o'clock, go running at seven and my recovery would be a Mars Bar on the way home. I did that until I was 20! I think those values from an early age went a long way in protecting me when I became a senior athlete, by not allowing noise to get into my head and affect my mindset or decision-making throughout my career.

As an elite athlete, you’re asking pretty extreme things of your body. How do you consistently manage to fuel your training so well?

I think it's being consciously aware of needing to fuel. I get up and have breakfast because I know I've got a training session in the morning. I know that I might feel sick after pushing myself so hard, so I'll always have a recovery shake in my bag that gives me the immediate energy I need. Then I'll have a lunch prepared that I enjoy. When you do a hard session your appetite might be suppressed, but you've worked hard and you need to eat. As long as there are some calories, carbs and protein in there, it doesn’t matter what it is.

I’m very organised, especially in high-stress times like race season or when I’m travelling. I do a weekly shop: I write down a list of meal ideas for the week, so I have the right ingredients in. I have food that I enjoy, and if I can’t be bothered to cook, I’ll always have easy meals like beans and bagels. I’m not afraid of getting a takeaway! It’s about keeping it really simple – and always having a snack in your bag.

How have you avoided the pressure of comparing yourself to other athletes?

It’s about understanding that your body is unique. You should be proud of the body you have and what that body can do. It blows my mind that a girl from the north east of England can run 5k in 14:35! I've been to the Olympic Games, I've got these medals sitting in my flat and I'm so proud of that. They will forever be some of the best moments of my life and the body that I was given can do that. I want to pass that message on to others: your body can do anything that you want it to do, but you have to respect it and put your health first.

Your body is not the same as the next athlete on the start line. We are all built differently. We all have different genetics, and if you respect your body, get to know it, train in a way it will respond to, you will have incredible results.

As soon as you stand on that start line wanting to look like someone else, you’re making a choice that could ultimately lead to injury and illness. You’re already not going to perform in the way that you should.

We're not all going to be Olympic champions. I might never be a world champion, but that is okay because my gold medal performance is very personal. If you understand what winning means to you, you'll always be content and proud of your performance.

You’ve described how your coach as a teenager didn’t push you too soon, and for the second half of your career you’ve worked with retired middle-distance legend, Steve Cram. How can coaches play a positive role in helping athletes avoid RED-S? 

My club coach was absolutely brilliant. Whether it was intentional or not, he just let me enjoy running: he never mentioned my weight or my shape, he just let me turn up and run and go home. I was extremely lucky that I found a coach who recognised I had a talent and wanted to nurture that talent, but never pushed it too hard.

Steve has always been really supportive and he's very aware of the language he uses: he's never once said I need to lose weight. In fact, he’s usually the one saying ‘right, we need make sure you get your dinner in straight away. Are you feeling okay? Have you recovered?’ He's only questioned my weight once and that was because he thought I was too light. But he didn't actually tell me himself: he got someone else to mention it because he wanted to make sure it came across in the right way. I thought that was a really brilliant way of dealing with it, and he was right: I was a little bit stressed and I think things hadn't been going as well for me.

He always says that when he sees me running, if I'm moving well, he knows that my weight is okay. He's never said I need to be a certain weight: when you're fit and healthy and running well, he says, your body weight is where it should be.

It should never be about a number: depending on your muscle mass or how your weight lies, a number on scales means nothing. It’s about how healthy and happy you are.

For Steve and I, it comes down to communication. He lives two hours away so we rely on good, honest communication from both sides. I also have a great support team here in Leeds who monitor me on a day-to-day basis. I have a brilliant physio: she would notice changes in my physicality as she sees me so regularly. The way in which my support team approach looking after me, the subtle encouragement they give me, has kept me in a place of happiness and health. That’s what’s really important: there's never been negative language, no suggestive language, it's always been positive and making sure I’m okay. We’re always ahead of anything that could potentially turn to a negative. I feel very fortunate in the team that I've had for my whole career: if I'm ever concerned about anything, I know I've got people around me who I can ask for help.

As well as competing, you’re a qualified coach and experienced mentor. How can mentoring support young athletes?

I've been lucky over the years to have had some great mentors. Steve, as my coach, has had a significant impact on my life and has been hugely influential. Particularly in the early years of working with him, I learned so much from every conversation, and I wouldn't be where I am without him. I've also been fortunate enough to gain invaluble advice from Paula Radcliffe; she's been incredibly supportive.

Being a mentor myself is something I’m extremely passionate about; I naturally gravitate towards looking after people and I find it so rewarding. It’s so important to really support and nurture the next generation at such an impressionable age, sharing positive knowledge and experience and recognising when athletes might be struggling and helping signpost them.

I think it’s critical to have someone who is not in your regular, day-to-day circle to go to when you have a worry or concern. If you have that trusting relationship, it can help deal with a lot of issues a little bit sooner – but you need to be in a place of health yourself to give that information.

What would you like to say to anyone who suspects they might be suffering from RED-S?

You’re not alone, and it’s okay to feel the way you’re feeling, but there is a way out. Reach out, ask for help, ask for support: you don't have to deal with this alone. It's nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of. I think too often people are worried that they're going to be judged, or that they can't get out of the cycle, but you can: you just need to reach out and ask for help. It is out there and you can be a healthy and happy athlete.

And finally, let’s circle back to where this all began. What is it that you love about running?

I feel incredibly lucky that running is my job, but even before that I just loved being able to put my trainers on and go for a run. It's that feeling of freedom, of floating across the ground. When you're in the best shape of your life you just float and you glide and you don't even feel like you're trying. It's going to explore a new place; meeting a friend to go for a run and finishing at a coffee shop. It's the social element, the feeling of pushing yourself and feeling good about yourself. For me, that's what it's about. It's not about going to run on the treadmill and punishing myself, it’s about getting outside and exploring and seeing what my body can do and where it takes me. I feel incredibly lucky that I've travelled the world and it's my job, but even if it wasn’t my job I’d always run because I just love to run. If you lose why you run, lose the passion and enjoyment, you’re never going to perform.