Life Without Elite Sport: Food and Body Image
When an athlete stops training full-time, their relationship with food is likely to change significantly. Depending on how much exercise they still fit in to their daily routine, they may even need to start eating like a normal person! Instead of food being crucial ‘fuel’—energising performance and aiding recovery—it will now take a more unassuming role. Yes, fuelling is important for everyone, but daily choices won’t have quite such a significant impact on their livelihood as it did when they were competing. But just how complex is an athlete’s relationship with food, and how does it change once they leave sport behind?
For many athletes, food is somewhat of an obsession—after all, optimising calorie intake and expenditure can be a key factor in performance. Most athletes will be familiar with nutrition plans, weighing scales and callipers, with the dreaded ‘skin fold’ measurements being taken every couple of months and body weight being recorded on a weekly basis. (For those who aren’t familiar with skin folds, this is literally someone using a pair of callipers to pinch your skin at various places on your body in order to measure subcutaneous fat – it’s about as fun as it sounds!)
Working out how your individual physiology responds to energy input and output, and optimising your body composition, is a fine art and can take years of careful calculations to perfect. Leaving all this behind can seem like a relief but if, like me, you’ve competed at a high level for most of your life, the sudden lack of structure and rules around nutrition is a bit unnerving.
My biggest piece of advice is to try and take the pressure off meal times completely. The reality is that you probably need to eat a bit less than before (unless you’ve jumped into hardcore training for another sport), so try and be guided by your hunger rather than a rigid fuelling schedule. Keep the majority of what you’re eating healthy (you’ll probably feel a bit gross if you start eating rubbish!), but don’t worry too much about planning everything to the nearest calorie.
One of the most unexpected bonuses for me was suddenly having the time (and energy) to invest in properly preparing and cooking meals. When you’re an athlete, much of the joy can be lost from mealtimes—we don’t usually eat what we want, we eat what we need to perform. I remember living with one athlete who had a really high metabolism and needed to eat huge quantities of food to be able to train. But, far from this being the ‘dream’ that normal people long for, he actually said eating was just a chore for him—endlessly shovelling calories loses its appeal after a while! Out in the ‘real world’, I can relax my timeframes around meals—it’s no longer crucial to refuel 30 mins after an evening session, and not being starving all the time means I can afford to cook things that take a little longer than my regular stir fry, pasta and risotto staples! Sometimes it’s still convenient to cook quick, easy meals, but it’s nice to be able to invest time into preparing, cooking and sharing meals in a way that I’d never really been able to do as an athlete.
Along with your relationship with food, your body too, is likely to change as you adjust to normal life, whether that’s losing muscle or (like me) softening around the edges! That’s the reality of leaving elite sport behind and although we (kind of) know that it’s going to happen, it can still be stressful to see the numbers changing on the scales, or our physiques slowly changing in the mirror, especially if you’ve always taken pride in how many of your abs can be identified through your t-shirt…
When it comes to body image, every athlete is different, but it can be helpful to set some sensible expectations and remind yourself of these regularly. Lots of ex-athletes say they struggled with their changing body composition when they left sport, but for many the struggle is actually with their expectations of what ‘normal’ feels like for them. Losing a bit of muscle mass or gaining a bit of weight isn’t an inherently bad thing; we’re just mentally conditioned to think that anything other than an optimally honed physique is unacceptable.
As an athlete you’re likely to have taken pride in your body, even if it was a bit of a love/hate relationship when your swimmer’s shoulders don’t fit into a dress, or your Chris Hoy-esque quads mean that all your trousers need extensive tailoring. In a sense, when you’re competing at a high level, you are being judged on your appearance. Not directly (that sounds bloody awful), but you’re having your fat and muscle mass measurements taken regularly and you’re being told what to do based on these measurements.
I remember a training programme where every athlete would get weighed twice a week and our weights would be put into an Excel spreadsheet—each weight would turn the cell green, amber, red, or dark red, depending how close you were to your ‘ideal’ race weight. This isn’t uncommon—sport can be brutal, and numbers and stats are the weapon of choice when it comes to feedback. This kind of impersonal analysis can, unhelpfully, lead to a subconscious belief that self-worth is tied up in the numbers on the scales or your percentage of lean muscle mass—nobody wants to see those dark red rectangles populating their column. The narrative goes like this: when I’m lean and strong, I am happy, positive and confident about myself; when I am seeing sub-optimal measurements, I am anxious, worried and less confident in myself and my abilities. This can lead to the feeling that you’re on track when you’re in shape and that you’re somehow inadequate when you’re not.
Subverting this narrative is a struggle for many competing athletes and can continue way beyond a sporting career. Now that you’re no longer being continually assessed on the percentage of fat in your calves, it’s important to keep reminding yourself that your worth isn’t even remotely tied up in your appearance or body composition. It is genuinely only you who cares that you had to get a new pair of jeans because the old ones don’t fit any more. It’s genuinely only you who feels upset that you can only count one abdominal now (also known as a ‘tummy’). It’s genuinely only you who minds that each individual quadricep muscle can no longer be seen from space. This isn’t to discredit the struggle (and I’ve had my fair share of glaring at the mirror, willing some part of my body to change), but it’s important to know that it’s only your own perception that leaves you feeling inadequate. Other people are far more interested in your story, your interactions and your value as a person, than whether you can bench press them…
Set some goals for the things you’re bringing to the world now that athletic endeavour isn’t your only objective. Here are some of mine:
- To bring value to others by sharing my sporting experiences and toolkit from elite sport
- To challenge myself at learning something new each week—or to do something that scares me
- To give myself permission to enjoy social time and interaction with others
- To commit to learning from people who have challenges and experiences that are different from my own
- To be creative, with writing and designing
- To be able to laugh at myself and bring laughter to others
By establishing some goals or behaviours outside of sport, it’s much easier to get perspective on body worries and notice how inconsequential it is that you’ve put on a few kilos. Remind yourself that, over time, your body will change, and that that’s ok—it doesn’t devalue you as a person or your impact and influence on the world, and it also doesn’t invalidate any of your achievements and successes from sport. For now, being generally fit and healthy (and happy) is far more important than how well-defined your obliques are.