‘Beware body weight obsession’

Expert opinion: Dr Shaun Riebl, clinical assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, has studied the prevalence of eating disorders among cyclists

‘Train like a horse, eat like a rabbit’ is an oft-heard adage in cycling. Once you’ve put in hours upon hours of training, bought lighter wheels, pedals, saddle and bars, there’s only one thing left to improve: your body weight.

Are you in optimum shape, or could you improve your power-to-weight ratio? It’s a question that poses risks.

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Often, riders who’ve lost a couple of kilos and perceived a benefit to their performance feel impelled to shed yet more weight. It can be hard to draw the line.

We’re constantly bombarded with messages from teammates and the media, goading us to compare ourselves to others. But what if losing a few kilos becomes a compulsion to lose several more?

Eating disorders affect around 19 per cent of male and 45 per cent of female athletes, according to research.

Recovery right after every ride

Simply, anorexia is characterised by an intense fear of, and intense efforts to prevent, gaining weight. Bulimia is distinguished by eating larger than normal amounts of food followed by extreme efforts to prevent weight gain, e.g. excessive exercise.

Cyclists honoured as ‘fit’ typically have low body fat and high lean mass. A hollow look around the eyes and protruding ribs can be regarded, perversely, as indicative of race-ready fitness.

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Extreme habits such as weighing food and counting calories can begin to seem normal within a cycling subculture, but these behaviours can easily morph into an eating disorder.

Overly restrictive eating is rarely the result of mere inexperience; it usually indicates deeper issues.

Certain personality traits like perfectionism, being very goal-orientated, and other factors like genetics and body-image issues can increase a cyclist’s susceptibility to disordered eating.

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Of course, you need to be competitive to succeed, but too much emphasis on weight loss can be a recipe for disaster.

At what point does the preoccupation with diet, weight, and cycling success begin doing us more harm than good? This is the question that we must continually ask ourselves.