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REDs through the eyes of a professional cyclist

An interview with Laura Pittard

I met Laura years ago in one of the support groups for women with hypothalamic amenorrhea. I believe we have many things in common- love for cycling being only one of them. Laura is an avid cyclist racing for one of the UK´s leading teams onForm.

Hi Laura, nice to have you here. Before going to the main topic of the day, could you please tell us more about yourself, your career as a student and cyclist! What are the most common raced that you do and enjoy most?

Hi Tina, thank you for this opportunity to raise some awareness about the possibility of recovering from HA/RED-S and the importance of it!

I have a previous degree in Biomedical science, and I am now in my final year as a physiotherapy student. I discovered a passion for cycling whilst at university and have since dreamed of taking it as far as I can, being a professional cyclist would be the absolute dream. That said, I enjoy being able to make a difference and applying science to improve people’s lives and health; something which physiotherapy gives you. So, for now I am still exploring all avenues and seeing where my journey takes me within the goals I’ve set.  Racing wise I have recently focused more on time trials due to the nature of COVID-19, and I enjoy these. I also love a track IP or criterium race on an open circuit. Team time trials are also fun!

How can you manage your time as a full-time student and professional cyclist?

Sometimes studies must take priority, and sometimes cycling takes priority. I try to find a balance as best I can, which ideally looks like effective training combined with enough quality hours of study and meeting any deadlines. Physiotherapy can be very full on physically, mentally, and emotionally and so recently I have been trying to acknowledge this more and take enough time for myself too. Having a coach who helps me to structure my training to make the most of the time I have available and knowing when to be self-compassionate and acknowledge you are doing too much is key.

@Laura Pittard

What are your experiences as being a female cyclist? Why is it cool to be a female cyclist, besides from being able to wear the pink jersey all the time 😀

Mostly very positive! I was lucky enough at university to have some strong and inspiring women in my cycling club who were very pro-women’s cycling, something which I am really pleased to see continuing today. I’ve made some really good friends and met some incredible people through cycling, which I definitely would not have done otherwise. I think women’s cycling is unique in how supportive the environment can be, particularly coming from a few years ago when there were hardly enough women to even hold a women’s only race. 

Do you often discuss female issues with your teammates? What are the topics that you chitchat the most often about?

Not so much on my new team, but previous teams we have discussed everything from saddle fit, to periods, nutrition, to finding the right coach who understands the difference between women’s and men’s physiology and how this applies to training. I think it’s good to be open as it gives you a more holistic approach and guaranteed you won’t be the only one who has struggled with something!

It is very popular nowadays to talk about relative energy deficiency in sport (REDs) and menstrual dysfunction publicly. Many professional athletes have opened up about their dieting, desire to be extremely lean and consequently about the health and performance issues they had to face. What do you think were your reasons that led to your health problems, and could you describe them a bit?

My RED-S started before I was cycling, but I don’t think the cycling really helped with my recovery, at least initially, as I was still under-fuelling and too underweight for my ideal bodyweight. For me it was a combination of intentional weight loss, combined with exam and university stress, and high levels of exercise combined with under-fuelling. I was very influenced by the culture of ‘clean eating’ and being ‘lean’, which led me to lose a lot of body weight and develop eating habits that did not provide enough energy for the work my body was doing. It is quite simple really, but it took me a long time to accept it in my head and be brave enough to embrace recovery. My main symptom was losing my period, but I also was very anxious and had low mood and would struggle to concentrate or perform well. I was often exhausted and run-down.  

What was this moment like when you realised that what you were doing was no longer healthy, helpful for performance?

When my doctor wanted to put me on a contraceptive pill to give my body exogenous estrogen to try and protect my bone density, I realised this was not healthy and I needed to make a change.

During the recovery, what strategies did you implement? What was the hardest thing to change?

I took inspiration and encouragement from stories of other women who had gone through a similar process themselves, many of them athletes, and looked to their strategies and how much stronger they were after recovery. I read the book ‘no period now what’ to educate myself and learn about why my body was in survival mode and what I needed to do to let it recover. I tried to ensure I was eating enough to fuel my training, so increasing portion sizes, eating enough around training, allowing myself to eat a wider range of foods, embracing dessert, generally trying to enjoy life and food a bit more! Stress management has been massive for me, so taking time to relax and any strategies around looking after my mental health are always a priority. It was hard to take proper rest and recovery days as I used to just exercise to manage my anxiety but now, I embrace them and know how important they are.

Now years after getting your period back. What is the thing that you have learned during the recovery and cherish the most also now?

Your body is amazing and can heal but you need to listen to it! I really cherish the days where I feel fantastic and can really perform and feel strong, but also try to embrace the days where my body is asking for rest and food. Also, the little things like being more emotionally in tune and more grateful of my health.

Hereby, I must thank Laura for being so honest and open about her experience with cycling career and her recovery from REDs. Hopefully, many of the readers will find her wise words encouraging and motivating to avoid unnecessary dieting and start fuelling for the work required.

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