Fatigue, food preoccupation and missing periods are just some of the signs.
You’ve heard it a million times before – if you want to run faster, you need to run more.
In a culture that promotes a ‘no excuses’ attitude towards working out, pushing yourself beyond your limits is often celebrated as a sign of discipline, agility and physical strength.
As we fixate on improving our performance and reaching new goals, we rarely consider the future losses of our present gains.
An unhealthy endurance athlete may seem like the ultimate paradox, but it’s a lot more common than you may think. RED-S is a syndrome that affects countless sports fanatics – many of whom don’t even know it exists.
What is RED-S?
RED-S refers to Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, and it is exactly what it sounds like. Previously called the Female Athlete Triad, it is characterised by low energy availability due to a caloric deficit.
The condition, which was termed in 2014 by the International Olympic Committee, can affect both males and females, including elite and non-elite athletes. It can lead to irreparable damage, impairing almost every system of the body if left untreated.
With little known about RED-S in the general medical and athletic community, it often goes overlooked. It prevails under the radar, only drawing attention after a drastic injury or mental collapse.
‘It is still a relatively new condition,’ explains Sports and Eating disorder specialist dietitian, Renee McGregor. ‘It is a clinical condition within a sporting community, so only practitioners trained in both clinical and sports science/medicine will have a full understanding.’
However, as the evidence of its dangers mount, more people are speaking out to raise awareness about the syndrome.
One of these voices belongs to Great Britain runner Pippa Woolven, who suffered from the debilitating condition for over five years. Determined now to help others through her mentorship programme, she shares her own experience with RED-S with Runner’s World.
Warning signs of RED-S
RED-S manifests in a variety of physical and psychological symptoms, which unfortunately, often go unnoticed. Creeping up in the form of benign colds and general fatigue, it’s unlikely to sound any alarm bells at first.
‘It was worryingly easy to dismiss the initial warning signs, since they were all relatively subtle in isolation,’ Woolven says.
These seemingly minor symptoms are in fact indicative of the body slowly breaking down. ‘Biological processes become depressed,’ McGregor explains. ‘When there is not enough energy in the system, digestion slows, resulting in bloating, discomfort and IBS symptoms.’
Stubborn sniffles and chronic coughs are another side effect of this deficit.
‘The immune system also becomes impacted, which puts the individual at a higher risk of infections and illness.’
A key symptom of RED-S in female runners is hypothalamic amenorrhea, or the absence of menstruation. While regular periods are a sign of good health, they can also be a major hindrance for many female athletes. Their disappearance is often a welcome relief from monthly cramps, headaches and mood swings – all of which impact training and racing.
‘It seemed more convenient not to have them,’ Woolven reveals. ‘I didn’t have to worry about being on my period during competitions or buying tampons anymore.’
This acceptance of amenorrhea speaks to an uncomfortable truth about RED-S.
Its early symptoms can perversely enhance performance – at least, in the short-term. Excessive training and restrictive eating leads to lower body weight, which can result in faster times. The detriment of these behaviours is obscured by their immediate benefits – more PB’s, more medals and more acclaim.
‘In my mind, I was just doing what it took to reach my potential in sport. I thought the odd illness, body image issue and low iron levels were just part of the challenge,’ Woolven says.
The danger of RED-S lies not in its symptoms, but in our failure to recognise them as symptoms.
RED-S is not an invisible illness that wreaks havoc on our internal organs as we ignorantly carry on with our lives. It waves at us in a bunting of red flags, but we remain colourblind to its warnings. In a society warped by messages like ‘No pain, no gain’ and ‘Eat less, move more’, it’s easy to view physical hardship as fundamental to making progress.
Our ability to detect health problems can, ironically, be corrupted by our determination to reach our fitness goals.
The responsibility of others
With athletes often unable to identify the issue objectively, it’s crucial that their support team develops an understanding of RED-S.
Unfortunately, the initial ‘pros’ of the condition are often applauded by coaches, whose concerns are typically rooted in achieving visible results. Many doctors also have little knowledge of the condition, which further delays diagnosis. Despite displaying all the symptoms, it took years for Woolven to discover she had RED-S.
‘I’d had countless blood tests, seen multiple doctors and endocrinologists and not once was RED-S or the Female Athlete Triad suggested.’
Woolven emphasises the importance of discussing menstruation more openly in the athletic community. A loss of periods, which is a major indicator of RED-S, is often normalised in female runners and can therefore go unnoticed.
‘Every doctor who looked at my body weight and food consumption reassured me: no period – no problem,’ Woolven reveals.
The female body requires a certain amount of energy to make sure reproductive hormones regulate and produce a monthly period. Hormones such as oestrogen are also crucial for bone health, cardiovascular health and cognitive health.
‘During amenorrhoea, when these hormones are reduced and often non-existent, individuals put their health and performance at risk,’ explains McGregor.
Exhausted from her futile chase of a concrete diagnosis, Woolven finally decided to take matters into her own hands. She came across a series of articles and blogs on RED-S, and was shocked to discover how accurately they detailed her own symptoms.
Despite the relief of finding an answer after years of confusion, Woolven felt frustrated by the vagueness of the condition. ‘At first, I couldn’t believe that the simplicity of the RED-S description could possibly explain the complicated nature of my problem.’
As she delved further into her research, Woolven was confronted by a painful realisation – her body had been undernourished for years.
‘It became apparent I had quite simply spent years in an energy deficit that was far from replenished during the “reset” I thought was behind me,’ she admits.
This prolonged energy deficit is far from benign. The long-term consequences of RED-S include, but are not limited to, decreased bone density, cardiovascular issues, gastrointestinal disturbances and decreased immunity. Armed with this new information, Woolven embarked on a plan to salvage her deteriorating health.
With RED-S often taking years to be diagnosed, there is no fast lane to recovery. As many of its physical symptoms grow from a deeply entrenched mindset, effective treatment requires a focus on one’s mental health. Initially, Woolven attempted to loosen her rigid attitude towards nutrition and training on her own. Despite her good intentions, the process was a lot harder than she had expected.
‘I seemed to be stuck in an agonising middle ground; motivated enough to start the process but continually falling short, time and time again,’ she says.
After ‘a series of half-hearted efforts and frustrating partial comebacks’, Woolven took a crucial step in her recovery – seeking professional guidance. With the help of a psychotherapist, she dug deeper into her disordered eating patterns and established a plan to combat these unhealthy behaviours.
Woolven also began to take time away from running, to pursue other hobbies and invest time in close relationships. To her surprise, varying her interests only benefited her training. She quickly realised that she did not have to neglect all other aspects of her life to reach her athletic goals.
‘Ironically, I performed at my worst when I was overly focused on sport,’ she explains.
Athletes in Balance
Woolven’s experience inspired her to establish Athletes in Balance, a mentorship programme which supports people battling with similar issues. Having struggled to receive a RED-S diagnosis and to implement an effective treatment plan, she now wants to assist those who may be presenting symptoms.
‘My goal as a mentor is to be the person who shows up, looks at the bigger picture and then helps someone apply their strength as an athlete to overcoming challenges related to RED-S,’ she says.
While she recognises that it is not a replacement for medical intervention, Woolven believes that her mentorship can be a valuable resource for those grappling with RED-S. With her extensive experience of the condition, she aims to a provide the holistic support that may be missing from standard clinical treatment.
‘Sometimes science doesn’t hold all the answers to the change in mindset an athlete may need to go through,’ she explains.
By sharing her story, Woolven hopes to help others identify the warning signs of RED-S, implement effective strategies, and of course, emphasise the importance of balance in every athlete’s life.
If you think you may be suffering from RED-S and need someone to talk to, Woolven can be contacted here.