When the Power to Weight Ratio Bottoms Out
I think that was part of my problem – I was so focused on results, and these somewhat arbitrary numbers of power to weight ratio and 20-minute power times; watts, and times up different climbs. It was taking me away from the more holistic, bigger picture of sustainability and resiliency and durability as a cyclist and as an athlete.
Like many endurance athletes, a passion for racing ran in Jackson Long’s family. He began tagging along to his father’s cycling races, and entering on his own at twelve. Growing up in Sun Valley, Idaho – known more for mountain sports and snowy winters – he was the only kid in school picking pavement over single-track. “For better or worse”, his identity became the fusion of that uniqueness and early success on the bike: Jackson the cyclist.
As he climbed through the junior ranks, exciting opportunities arose, like racing in Europe and a spot on the renowned team at the University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder. Sharing “every young cyclist’s dream” of racing the Tour de France, it seemed like the groundwork was being laid for a pro career – he was living in an endurance sport mecca, and earning strong results in events all over the country, both in amateur and college races.
Working hard to take his training and racing to the next level, his focus became increasingly singular and his lifestyle increasingly monk-like. To some extent, this was normalised by the environment he was immersed in – Boulder (which he also referred to, tongue-in-cheek, as “the exercise addiction capital of the world”) has a very high density of professional and elite amateur athletes. And it was not all bad – he has fond memories of living in the freshman dorm with a teammate, setting up their trainers on cold winter mornings with their door open, receiving strange looks from hallway passersby who were returning from late nights of perhaps more typical college student weekend behaviour.
In his second year, he was picked up by a high level amateur team and presented with the opportunity to train and race full time. Taking the spring semester off from school, he headed south from snowy Colorado to the dry desert roads of Tucson, Arizona where he lived in a house tucked away in the surrounding hills with a few of his teammates. “When I look back, that's sort of where the kind of dark side came out,” he recalled.
Eat, sleep, and train. It’s an environment many aspiring athletes dream of, and yet, for some, it can be a recipe for overtraining, rocky mental health, and RED-S.
“I was working with a coach who I don’t think had any ill intent, but just didn't have any experience or training in nutrition, and was providing some pretty poor recommendations and guidance, on top of 20 to 30 hours a week of training.
And combine that with being super isolated, just living with one other person up in the hills for months at a time, training five-six hours a day, and having no other social outlet. You kind of just get into a rabbit hole, and can get really fixated on certain things. And cycling, in particular, is such a metric driven game. You focus so much on what your power metre is showing, you focus so much on times up certain segments or climbs. So that's really where I started to become hyper obsessive around food and weight, and specifically, carbohydrates.”
As the rabbit hole closed in around him, all he could think about was his desire to maximise his power-to-weight ratio. But rather than looking for ways to improve how much power he could push through the pedals, he focused on manipulating the denominator of the ratio. Carrying less weight would surely lead to faster times, or so he believed.
“I started using really negative practices in an effort to become as light as I could.”
And – like many athletes who struggle with RED-S know – his carb and calorie restriction worked initially. But the improvement was short lived.
“I was definitely climbing faster at first. But eventually it backfired, and there was a lot of hangfire as a result with regards to sickness, injury, and poor performance. It really just killed my season, and honestly, killed my career because that season was sort of pivotal to make it to the professional level.”
From the other side of recovery, Jackson can see his wide array of symptoms induced by low energy availability as interconnected, but at the time, he knew nothing of RED-S. Becoming progressively more miserable in his monastic training environment, he could tell his recovery from hard sessions was repeatedly compromised, and he had zero sex drive, “which, as a healthy 20 year old – that should not be happening,” he laughed.
He became “incredibly fatigued”, unable to get out of bed apart from his training sessions, and his performance and sensations during training became increasingly inconsistent. “Sometimes I would go out for intervals and feel amazing. Some days, I would just be totally tanked.”
When race season rolled around, he “had no gas”. His spring stage races resulted in DNF (did not finish) after DNF, and – ironically – his sought after power-to-weight ratio rapidly declined. But what he found most frustrating was the mismatch between what he could do in training, and what happened on race day. “I had amazing 20-minute power and was doing really well on all these local climbs, so I was like, ‘Why is this not lining up for me in 120-mile road races?” Looking back, he recognizes the culprit was obvious: underfueling.
“You need resiliency and durability. You need glycogen stores.”
While there were plenty of lows in racing and training, the most eye-opening situation occurred off the bike. That spring, he vividly remembers attending a chocolate-themed party at the home of a family friend. His body screaming desperately for energy, he suddenly found himself feeling out of control at the dessert table, consuming all of the cookies, cakes, and chocolates he could get his hands on; eating until he felt sick. “To me, that was a signal of: This is dysfunctional. There's something wrong here if I'm craving (sweets) and going overboard this much. There’s something wrong.”
Looking for answers, he had some blood work done, which showed a number of biomarkers that were “off”: low B12, iron deficiency, poor immune function, inflammation. After “constantly” being sick, he also received a diagnosis of walking pneumonia.
He questioned whether he had what it took to become a pro cyclist – or if he did, but this was the price he’d have to pay, was it still worth it?
“I was getting ripped away from the original reason why I started riding a bike in the first place, and I was just losing the love of it. It was such a job, it was such a chore, and it just felt like I was smacking my head against the wall every day because I just had no energy.”
Deciding to take a step back, he returned to CU and resumed classes to pursue his interests in physiology and nutrition. Though it was not his original intent, his studies helped him begin to unpack and understand the impact of the combination of restrictive eating and high training volume had on his body.
Taking a break from his bike, Jackson began trail running with friends around Boulder and quickly sustained a stress fracture in his pelvis. Shortly after, he had the chance to get a DEXA scan during an exercise physiology lab, which showed he had “shockingly low” bone density and was advised to discuss it with a physician.
Sitting in a follow up lecture, he remembers learning about the female athlete triad and identifying with the symptoms, leaving him more confused than informed.
“I just remember listening to the professor talk about the triad, and I was like, this is kind of happening to me, or this is relatable to me as a male. And I was looking around like, am I the only one?”
Once RED-S was introduced by the IOC, Jackson realised he was definitely not alone.
Confronted with low bone density, abnormal blood work, and the massive decline in energy and performance following his stint in Arizona, Jackson felt eager to make a change in his path. There was no roadmap available, but he knew he needed to do “something radically different.”
He now credits two primary factors with his recovery from RED-S: taking time away from sport, and focusing on nutrition. Specifically, he did a 180 from a low carb, protein-centric paleo-style diet, to adopt a fully plant-based focus.
Jackson recognises that this type of diet could also be seen as restrictive, limiting, or even disordered, and is not for everyone. But in his experience, “it pulled me out of the hole for a number of reasons.
“First, it allowed me to eat enough carbohydrates. That’s really the basis of this diet. But it also made me more connected with what I was eating and zoom out from just myself. I was learning about the environment, I was learning about animal welfare, and long-term health and longevity. And I really became passionate and interested in nutrition, which sort of took me out of the fairly selfish pursuit of performance in cycling.”
Finally fueling his body properly, and giving it the time to heal, he began to “fall back in love with cycling” and his passion for cycling had been “re-energized.” He still enjoyed racing, but mostly found joy in long rides with friends.
“I did this amazing trip with a couple of my racing buddies to Europe, and we just toured around on our bikes and did all these classic European climbs. And the best thing ever! To me, that's what sport is all about. I am still very competitive, and I still love racing, but that very low moment was a big lightbulb moment for me in the sense of: this is not how I want to be expressing myself as an athlete.”
Eight years after RED-S in males began to be described in research, he believes gaps remain in athlete education and understanding. “I think there's still a really big lack of awareness, because it's less concrete and apparent in males. There's no period to lose.”
Though Jackson believes the culture is changing for the better, his experiences highlighted how ingrained in male athlete culture some dysfunctional behaviours had become, particularly carbohydrate restriction and fear of weight gain.
“It was almost like a masculine thing in cycling to be like, I'm gonna go for this six hour ride with all these hard efforts, and then come back and eat a salad and go to bed. In a lot of the circles I was in, of different riders and even coaches, there was such a culture of under-eating to lose weight as if it was a macho thing, which is so weird and messed up in so many ways.”
In contrast, he has seen more “behind the scenes” restrictive tendencies in women; more whispers and subtle behaviours, versus loud, uncensored comments and glorified actions.
Now a Registered Sport Nutritionist with a degree in Integrative Physiology and masters in Applied Nutrition, Jackson works with athletes of all levels to interrupt diet-culture narratives and improve their nutrition. He also coaches youth cycling and cross-country skiing, and is passionate about spreading awareness about RED-S and educating athletes about the importance of carbohydrates and proper fueling for their long-term health and performance.
“I am so adamant about the importance of fueling for sustainability, not only in your athletic career, but also in day to day training, maintaining training volume, and the performances you want. I like the analogy of: If we think about ourselves as a sponge, we can only handle and soak up so much training. And we also want to be able to squeeze the most out of the sponge in each session to get the most training adaptation, the most benefit, the most quality. Every time we do that under-fueled, you're either starting with a smaller sponge, or you're not able to squeeze as much out.”
Check out Jackson's nutrition and coaching site, here.