An athlete’s story: Clean eating and intense training– where do we draw the line?

I’m writing this blog today not as a professional in mental health, not somebody who offers emotional support nor as a therapist but for the rare occasion, as myself in the role of athlete. This is a topic close to my heart because I have seen the effects of over training and food restriction take hold of those around me but I have also experienced areas of this myself across my teenage years and even to this day …

Elite sport is a very unique culture, performance is key and in order to achieve that level of excellence people’s standards of wanting perfection in everything from physical attributes, conditioning, aesthetics through to our personality types are extremely high! So, in a world where this is the norm how do we know what is healthy? How do we know when we are within a healthy zone of training, eating and performance culture without crossing that line in to routine, obsession and unhappiness? And beyond that in to eating disorders and further mental health issues?

I guess the real answer is that for most, we probably don’t! Not least until we are caught in that cycle and experiencing these things for real! You will find much research in sport discussing the importance of good nutrition, there is of course evidential backing for clean eating, fuelling your body efficiently and ensuring our ‘machine’ – our only vessel to execute greatness in sporting domain is appropriately fuelled! Likewise, with the training in order to achieve the very best standards in sport (regardless of the sport) you will find hours of practice, dedication, rehearsal and conditioning are essential to meet the mark – rest and recovery of course being just as important in that!

Now with the amount of sport science involved in sport these days athletes are very well looked after in these respects, we can trust in the team around us to provide us with the information, programmes and support to achieve these high standards. However, to follow such routine takes a certain type of person…

Somebody said to me once when I was a young athlete ‘in order to make it in sport, you have to have an element of craziness about you’, now at the time I didn’t understand what this meant. But years on, through many or the usual ups and downs of sport, more understanding of the sporting culture and greater self awareness in knowing my own habits I realise they were fairly accurate! That’s not to say I’m crazy or those around me are crazy, but I realise that there is certainly an element of obsession, addiction, routine and perfectionism that comes with the territory of making it in performance sport.

What can start as a routine and merely ‘following the programme’ quickly becomes your world, your whole world starts to revolve around the sport, the eating and the training you do … but that’s normal isn’t it? Because you have targets to meet? Goals to achieve? And this is only way to get there?!?!

In some respects those goals keep you going, they motivate you and inspire you to keep going, keep pushing and striving for perfection. One of my favourite quotes was given to me by my father (an ex international rugby player himself) and that was ‘by aiming for perfection we can reach excellence’. This has almost become my own motto – but in my training for big competitions where I stuck to training religiously and clean eating, no drinking, no going out, routine and discipline in everything I did, it quickly started to turn to something else….

Although training brilliantly in the gym and feeling great physically, there came a point where I noticed starting to feel unhappy about following the plan for myself. I envied those around me indulging in what they wanted, I couldn’t allow myself to have that treat or cheat meal in fear of the guilt that would follow, I never wanted to break the routine because id set myself a target and if I didn’t follow it through till after competition that would meant I failed, I would have lost, I would have done myself an injustice.

Now my reasons for this structure was certainly not weight based!!! And in reality I was very rational in that I knew I was never going to suddenly put on lots of weight or my performance suddenly dip – it was purely the target and expectation I had set myself. But that wasn’t the driving force for me…

Wanting to go in to big competitions knowing I had done everything I possibly could to be the best I can be, that was my motivator – that has always been my number 1 motivation in everything I do. ‘TO BE THE BEST ME’ not to look back and think I could have done any more.

So how do we break the cycle? I guess for me, as somebody who experienced over training as a teenager I know my signs and indicators a lot better. I can recognise that there is a difference between what is needed and what I want, I know my body a lot better. I know when I can push it but also when I need to rest. I can recognise when that need for excellence is starting to become more of an obsession than a lifestyle.

For me, a healthy mind is a healthy body – I have always been a strong advocate of this message not only because of the research available but because I feel it myself! I follow a healthy lifestyle, I sleep well, I don’t drink very often, I eat well and make good food choices and I also work hard in the gym. As much as I love to feel great inside and out from this choice of lifestyle I can also now see that times where I am really craving rest, something different, spontaneity of eating whatever I fancy, having a drink with a meal etc it is probably because I need it. And that’s ok!

I have learnt that actually I feel much happier by following that lifestyle but allowing myself to enjoy things around me and the things I crave. I always think that being rational, having perspective and also just enjoying life, and allowing yourself to be happy helps with making these choices…

There is so much pressure on athletes to look and be a certain way, so much media attention around lifestyle, fitness and clean eating that images and advice surround us everywhere we turn. But there are two rules people all need to follow when taking on any of these lifestyle changes;

  1. Each person is different, you have to learn what works for you, what you want, what your body needs and also your mind needs, emotionally where do you sit with all of this?
  2. You have to be happy! If you aren’t happy then is it working for you?

Life is far too short not to be happy and I know for me my performance is crucial, clean eating is important as is my training but ultimately if I do all of those things and aren’t happy along the way then that’s the failure. The failure and injustice isn’t in skipping a session to rest, having that lie in, or eating something bad, the failure is depriving my body and mind of things I want, the things I need and I now realise that by actually by doing that from time to time it helps me keep a good equilibrium. I am able to sustain an all-round healthy lifestyle, one that is disciplined, positive and performance based – not robot like!! Most importantly one which fits me!!!!

Perfectionism and its role in Athlete Wellbeing and Help Seeking

Perfectionism and its impact on wellbeing

Many believe that personality contributes to the way people perceive stigmas and their level of openness towards seeking psychological help (Miller, 2008).  Perfectionism is a facet of personality which may have both positive and negative consequences however; most research only focuses on its negative effects (Saunder, 2009). A broad definition of perfectionism is an ‘individual who displays a very high ambition for exceedingly high standards but also experiences harsh self-criticism’ (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990).

One might argue that in sport being a perfectionist is positive because of their desire to achieve, high motivation levels and always looking to improve or better performances (Saunder, 2009) However, it is because of those high standards; sometimes maybe unachievable standards, that they experience a lot of self criticism and low self esteem when targets aren’t met. Therefore research has found high co morbidity with mental health issues; typically depression, anxiety and eating disorders (Egan et al, 2010).

The difficulty with perfectionism is that it carries many admired characteristics as well as negative, Hill et al (2010). For example, the pursuit of high standards would be a very positive trait to carry particularly in sport where the focus is often on self improvement. However, on the other hand perfectionists also tend to have a preoccupation with harsh self criticism which may impact on wellbeing and therefore is associated with psychological imbalance (Hill et al, 2010)

Within sport the term ‘burnout’ is often used; in performance terms it would be characterised by experiencing physical and emotion fatigue, a reduction in their feeling of accomplishment and feeling undervalued (Raedeke and Smith, 2001). Raedeke and Smith also recognise the interplay between burnout and psychological effects, i.e. wellbeing; explaining that individuals at burnout stage may also experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, with perfectionism being a key contributing factor. Jowett et al (2013) found that perfectionist athletes have a very high motivation and drive to succeed and avoidance style of coping. Therefore, seeking help or admitting they need support would lower self esteem and be an admission of weakness contributing to them trying even harder. In time, this potentially leading to burnout – or in this case, further mental health issues.

It is believed that certain personality traits are key contributing factors in the development of burnout and psychosocial distress experienced by athletes (Hill et al 2010). Hill goes on to explain that these personality factors can influence the athletes appraisal process and encourage a vulnerability to experience high levels of anxiety and pressure (Hall et al, 1998) Perfectionism for example can be associated with negative cognitions surrounding achievement and performance
therefore lead to further negative thoughts, increases in anxiety and decrease in wellbeing, what is interesting now is evidence suggesting that perfectionism may act as a predisposing factor to athletes developing burnout during their athletic career (Hill et al, 2008).

Perfectionism and its Role in Help Seeking

Alongside the role perfectionism appears to play in athlete wellbeing, it is also interesting to consider what role it may play in athletes then taking up additional support, or in this case, counselling.  Endler and Parker (1994) describe how there are two methods of coping, problem focused coping and avoidant coping. The two methods are set within the management of stress and attempt to explain the various ways individuals may perceive and effectively then manage their stress. Problem focused coping would be a more pragmatic and analytic approach where the cause of stress is identified followed by a series of steps of how to overcome, these are then practiced. So in effect this is an active coping approach.

Avoidant coping is exactly as it sounds, an individual who either acknowledges the stress exists and so is in denial, or loses interest or the motivation to combat it so they lower their efforts to overcome and simply allow the stress to take hold. Using these approaches to coping and it is interesting to link them back to perfectionism because how they interplay in an individual could be very different. On one hand there is the ‘problem focused’ person who may recognise they simply cannot manage alone and due to their perfectionist traits of self improvement and wanting to get better actively take up support. Or, the avoidant approach where although carrying the desire to improve the individual feels that the uptake of support is an admission of weakness therefore refuses to acknowledge the problem exists and may almost live in denial of the problem. What is interesting is that using the motivational factor of self improvement in perfectionist athletes we can see that there are still different approaches to how these individuals then choose to improve their situation and as with anything it is still up to that person whether or not they choose to engage in the help provided.

In terms of perfectionism and wellbeing, whilst for sport perfectionist traits are useful and desirable the constant striving for better and harsh self criticism when perfect performances aren’t obtained can have a real impact on physical health through over training and disordered eating and also psychological health of low self esteem and depression (Egan et al, 2006). As for the role of perfectionism and help seeking, what Endler and parker (1994) go on to explain is that is very much depends on the individual and the type of coping style they adopt. For some, perhaps those more open and self aware the use of an expert may be seen as a way of self improvement and reaching those goals, for another though it may be an admission of weakness and confirmation that they are struggling therefore an isolated and more self problem solving approach would be used (Endler and parker, 1994).

So, do you know your athletes? Are you able to identify which athletes have perfectionist traits? Do their perfectionist traits benefit or hinder them? Is support available and normalised so all athletes feel comfortable enough to access?