What if we were to embrace puberty and adjusted our technique as needed?
In figure skating, puberty tends to be the unspoken enemy. As women’s bodies develop these changes completely alter weight distribution. Unfortunately, many female athletes attempt to postpone their body’s natural development.
Relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) is the result of insufficient caloric intake and/or excessive energy expenditure (Mountjoy et al). RED-S concept has been adapted from a previously identified syndrome known as the Female Athlete Triad. RED-S causes changes in physiological systems, including metabolism, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis and cardiovascular and psychological health (Mountjoy et al). Amenorrhea, not getting your period, means that your body either does not have enough energy intake for all systems to function properly or your body is overly stressed past an adaptive response. It is also an indicator that your body fat is lower than your body needs. To read about amenorrhea, click here.
Many believe that this is a normal part of being a strong and healthy athlete, but it’s actually a sign of under fueling. Estrogen is protective against bone loss. Osteoporosis is the weakening of the bones due to the loss of bone density and improper bone function (Mountjoy et al). Higher rates of injury are seen in athletes who do not menstruate regularly. It’s becoming increasingly common and it’s important to break the silence about amenorrhea and RED-S.
Undernourished and over exercised young bodies are very prone to injury and susceptible to eating disorders. Eating disorders reduce muscle strength and endurance, which are crucial. Eating disorders shorten the careers of even the most elite athletes (Ziegler et al). You need to properly fuel and nourish your body in order to have the strength, endurance and mental focus to train and execute on the highest level of the sport.
Success is largely subjective. Some just want to skate for fun. Some want to be national champions and Olympians. One is not better than the other, everyone’s path is different and is deserving of respect. Regardless of level, success is distinguished by hard work and dedication to your sport. Your success is not determined by your body or your ability to keep it small.
With more and more skaters bravely coming forward to shed light on to such painful and challenging issues, we need to advocate for change within the sport. In the perfect world, the federation would stare into the issue head on. Coaches need training and the federation needs to place pressure on ISU to raise minimum age for skaters, with the focus on women, so the pressure to remain the size of a 12-year-old has lifted. There needs to be resources dedicated solely to nutrition, education, and mental health.
So, what’s the alternative?
Embrace and nourish your growing body. Adjust your technique as you hit puberty and be patient with yourself as you allow your muscle memory to catch up. Bodies are supposed to change. Your 11-year-old body is going to be different from your 16-year-old body. You are allowed to be in you’re here and now body without trying to fix or change it.
Regardless of body size, athletes are much better off eating for normal growth and repair. If someone isn’t in “good enough physical shape” to be able to execute a jump or spin, then it would be about strength and endurance training. The belief that there is one ideal body type for skaters cultivates poor body image, eating disorders and poor self-esteem. Just as off ice and on ice are important, mental health impacts performance too.
Mountjoy M, Sundgot-Borgen J, Burke L, et al. The IOC consensus statement: beyond the Female Athlete Triad—Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)
Br J Sports Med 2014; 48: 491-497.
Taylor, G. & Ste-Marie, D.M. (2001). Eating disorders symptoms in Canadian female pair and dance figure skaters. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 32, 21-28.
Ziegler, P.J., Khoo, C.S., Sherr, B., Nelson, J.A., Larson, W.M., & Drewnowski, A. (1998). Body image and dieting behaviors among elite figure skaters. International Journal of Eating disorders, 24, 4.