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This Is Why The Female Athlete Triad Is So Important

It’s very common for athletes today to want to take their performance to the next level and in many instances will do ‘whatever it takes’ to get there. While putting the training in to reach your goals is necessary for you to be at the top of your game, skimping out on vital nutrients and energy will not help you get there.

There is a common misconception in sport, especially in women’s sports regarding leanness and having a competition weight, that the leaner you are the better you will perform. This is particularly prevalent in sports such as distance running, gymnastics, and ballet, but can occur in any sport.

While athletes obviously need to be in a certain shape physically to be able to perform successfully, this does not equal being in a calorie deficit. For those who don’t know what that is it simply means you can’t be eating less than you are burning for consistent periods of time while training intensely. Not only will this leave your body in a fatigued state, but you will also be lacking nutrients and interfering with your hormones. This especially applies to women and is often a precursor to the female athlete triad.

The female athlete triad is named this way because it consists of three components: an energy deficit, which leads to menstrual disturbances, and consequently, low bone mass.

An energy deficit is a leading contributor here, this is because when energy availability is reduced, the human body’s survival mechanisms kick in and energy is prioritized to functions, such as keeping the brain working and other metabolic processes over things like reproduction. When energy availability is low many bodily processes are impacted. Hormones are impacted and as a result, your bone health deteriorates putting you at risk for osteoporosis and increased likelihood of fractures which will be detrimental not only to your general wellbeing, but also to your sporting performance.

When I talk about low energy availability, some people will associate this automatically with eating disorders. While this would obviously be a cause of low energy availability, not everyone who has low energy availability has a categorized eating disorder. Some sports are so calorically demanding that the individual must pay close attention to fuelling themselves adequately so that they don’t fall into the energy deficit trap. If a teammate or someone you know is showing signs of disordered eating, it would be best to discuss the situation with someone such as a coach because the wrong things can easily be said and the situation would be best dealt with by someone who can get the individual professional help.

The key purpose of this post is to educate women of the implications that not having their period can actually have on the body. The main implication being Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis, when left untreated, can lead to serious bone breaks and fractures. The condition makes you highly likely to experience bone injuries while doing everyday activities that wouldn't usually affect someone with normal bone health. These implications can last for a long time depending on how long the under fuelling has been going on for.

While energy deficiencies can usually be addressed over a period of a few weeks, resuming menstrual status can take many months to start back up and low bone mineral density can take years to resolve and could have lasting negative effects that in some instances can’t be resolved.

This is why early preventative methods are crucial. If you are reading this or you know someone who is suffering from amenorrhea (absence of a period for 6 months or more) it is crucial to start focusing on getting enough food and a wide variety of nutrients into your diet while training less for a period of time until your cycle returns to normal to prevent further issues down the road.

As an athletic female, I have found the app ‘Clue' to be very useful to help keep track of my menstrual regularity. The app tracks your cycle when you enter your start and end date of each period, and makes it easy for you to see the regularity of your cycle. As a side note, I would also always recommend going to see a qualified professional if you find yourself to be in this position, so that you can get expert advice on your individual situation and your bones can be monitored. This can be done using expert equipment such as a Dexta scanner that can determine any bone loss.

Being aware that this is a serious issue is a major first step in getting back to full health. If you can relate to this article, I strongly suggest you don't wait around to seek professional advice. Early intervention in most cases prevents long term damage.