There's a pervasive philosophy in sport that more work = more reward.
When you win or achieve a personal best, it reinforces the belief that you worked harder than your opponent or previous self. When you lose, you believe you could’ve done more; been more dedicated, made better choices - and perhaps you could have. But sooner or later, there comes a point when more work doesn’t equal more fitness, more skill, or more success.
When you already do all you can to eat, sleep and breathe like a professional athlete while juggling the demands of a day job or family, you might feel cheated out of the promised performance gain. You may try to take extreme measures without even stopping to question them. And you’re not the only one. Many of the exercise and eating behaviours that the medical community deem 'disordered' are not only normalised, but actively encouraged in the fitness world. You can see it across the board in triathletes and runners on Instagram, with captions such as:
Dead on my feet but got that 10k done. Shoulder f*cked but swim sesh in the bank. Major bonk on 50 mile ride but refuelling with rice cakes. No energy, tired AF, still getting after it!
Such outward admission of chronic exhaustion is practically a status symbol in sport. This is coupled with an increase in the popularity of extreme events – ultramarathons, Ironmans, Spartan races, and beyond. It’s ‘not enough’ to train for a marathon, you need to go further for your event to be glorified.
Even while training for far shorter events, we get caught up in the fear of missing sessions or indulging in ‘treats’ unless they’re earned. We’ve all heard statements like:
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You’re only as good as your last workout. Success is what comes after you stop making excuses. The only workout you regret is the one you didn't do.
How many of us take them seriously - or laugh them off, just as we joke about how nutty all of our unsustainable training and nutrition habits are? Conforming to this culture, continually perpetuated by the media, is a constant temptation when it’s thrust upon us at every turn.
In this world, it’s easy to cross the line between discipline and disorder; being dedicated to our sport and waging war against our own bodies. Yet, the humbling reality is, ironically, doing everything in your power to succeed is often the quickest pathway to dysfunction or, worse still, disease. Trust us, because we’ve been there. We’ve got the battle-scars to prove it and we know we’re not alone. If you can benefit from our suffering then will it all have been worth it? Well.. no. But we’re here to try to help you anyway. Here’s our advice:
Learn how to listen to your body. No coach, stopwatch or smartphone can interpret your body’s own cues like you can. The sooner you can hear its feedback and learn how to respond, the sooner you can harness your own potential. This doesn’t mean taking it easy the whole time, or shying away from discomfort. It means knowing when to push on and when to back off. When to dial up the volume or intensity and when to prioritise rest and recovery. It is an inexact science, but it's your science.
Fully-functioning healthy hormones are what drive the beneficial adaptations to training. Just like everything else in life (pretty much), hormones thrive on balance. It takes just as much dedication and discipline to achieving this balance as it does to smash out sweat-drenching sessions time after time. Doing absolutely nothing is often the hardest, yet most productive way to progress. Forget what society says about more = more and test your own theories on the way to finding a healthy, sustainable medium.
Success in sport requires sustained effort (balanced with rest and recovery), which stems from sustained motivation, which stems from enjoyment. Success and fulfilment in sport, as in life, is a journey - not a destination. Try to enjoy the ride and the results will follow.
By Project RED-S Founder Pippa Woolven and Ambassador Rachel Rutherford