Weighing in: Nutrition, body image, and finding balance as a female athlete

by Kate Courtney


We all know that in endurance sports, weight matters. As a cyclist, I obsess over every aspect of my equipment, from the weight of a tiny bolt to the thickness of the sidewalls of my tires. I am constantly reminded that, like every watt, every gram counts.

For a long time, I was afraid to even acknowledge the natural extension of that philosophy. If the weight of my bike is so important, what does that mean for my body? I worried that, by even recognizing this reality, I would slip into unhealthy habits.

I wasn’t quite sure what the body of a female athlete should look like. Where was the line drawn between optimal and unhealthy for my sport and my body? During the race season, I tried to limit eating “unhealthy food” and got a little satisfaction out of successfully skipping dessert. I often found myself in the position of not knowing whether I should eat something or not. If I eat certain foods will they impact my performance? If I deny myself eating things I love, will I develop a problem? Despite these occasional moments, I never weighed myself during high school and tried to maintain a diet very similar to before I became a serious cyclist. I stayed pretty healthy, but as I continued to make progress in my cycling career, I knew I wasn’t optimizing my diet for what I was asking my body to do.

Becoming more engaged with my nutrition was initially driven by a desire to train harder. As my training load steadily increased, my diet hadn’t changed dramatically. I was still eating similar foods and I struggled to get enough calories to feel fueled on long rides without worrying about gaining weight. On the other hand, I wasn’t particularly lean and knew that managing my weight could be important for my performance. As an athlete with so much data at my fingertips and, what I felt, was a dialed routine, I still felt so much uncertainty when it came to what I should be eating, when and in what quantities.

During the 2017 season, I put a lot of time and energy into understand what I was eating and what my body needed. I started working with an incredible nutritionist named Kyle Pfaffenbach, and dug into the science of what I was eating. My primary goal was to fuel my body for what I needed it to accomplish. Of course, a secondary goal was to get stronger and leaner.

The first thing I realized when I began working with my nutritionist and paying very close attention to my diet was how many misconceptions I had allowed to persist by being afraid to even broach the subject.

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The thing that surprised me was how much I needed to fuel on rides. I had always measured the calories I expended, but often would go on a one- or two-hour ride without bringing much fuel. I thought if I was going to cut out some calories from the day, doing it during my ride made the most sense. I thought wrong. When I tried a new fueling plan — eating more, earlier in the ride — I found that I felt more energized throughout my workouts and didn’t come home starving, ready to scarf down a bag of tortilla chips.

I also found it really interesting that eating a lot more on the ride reduced my consumption of unhealthy food for the day. Instead of letting my body get completely depleted on a ride and being panicked and “hangry” when I got home, I fueled throughout and could make healthy nutrition choices when I got home, starting with my recovery shake instead of eating whatever was on the counter. I was giving my body more of what it needed, and less of what it didn’t. This is just one example, but it opened my eyes to the power that nutrition can have in allowing your body to do incredible things and recover fast enough to do them all over again.

I became really interested in the science of nutrition. As I learned more about what my body needed to perform and what was actually in the food I was consuming, I started to feel more in control in a healthy and positive way. As a human biology major, the science of nutrition intrigued me and made sense. For me, it took away the uncertainty in asking questions like “what should I be eating, and when?” Understanding what my body needed, and when, made healthy choices easy. I felt empowered and confident in having that extra serving of protein after a hard workout or picking up those very necessary avocados from the store to get enough healthy fats.

I also found that, contrary to my expectations, paying attention to what was in my food didn’t mean I felt the need to deprive myself of everything delicious. Instead, it allowed me to make informed decisions.

It’s no secret that I love tacos, and the fact that they make me happy is just as important as the fact that they are a great source of the protein, carbs and fat I need to refuel after a ride. Instead of getting home from a ride, eating a cookie, feeling guilty about the cookie and then not eating anything else, I made sure to fuel my body with the protein, carbs and fats I needed after the long ride and then felt great about following that up with a tasty cookie. Knowledge empowers me to still eat the things I love, but to do so in a way that works towards being a happy, healthy, fueled and lean athlete.

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After a long offseason of paying very close attention to nutrition, I found that my weight had remained pretty similar and even gone up, but my body composition had drastically changed. With the Red Bull High Performance team, I was able to track changes in my body throughout the year. In the fall, when I was doing a lot of weight training, I stepped on the scale and was shocked to see I had gained over a kilogram (2.2 pounds). When I got my test results back from Red Bull, I saw that weight wasn’t the entire story as I had dropped a significant percentage of body fat. While seeing that much weight gain might have sent me straight to a crash diet before, I now had the knowledge and resources to know I was actually on track and that my weight training was having the desired effect.

By the spring, with a harder training load on the bike, I naturally leaned out a bit and raced at the same weight as the season before, but looked completely different. Having more information about what was happening inside my body helped me embrace what healthy and strong looked like at different times of the year, look past the number on the scale and be confident in fueling for what I was asking my body to do.

I want to be clear up front that I am not a nutritionist and that diet is very individual and can be quite personal. Finding your optimal diet involves many factors — preference, body type, nutritional needs and exercise demands. In my opinion, there is no “one size fits all” plan or magical recipe for success. What I do feel strongly about, however, is that more female athletes should be involved in this conversation.

Eating is one of the most important parts of being an athlete and can be a source of either great joy or distress. I hope to see more women empowered to learn about nutrition and be confident in doing what feels right for their bodies. Instead of having conversations about weight in hushed tones, or behind closed doors — afraid that any conversation at all will lead to an eating disorder — I think we should be talking more openly what it means to be a healthy and happy female athlete. Recognizing the challenges in managing body image and nutrition as a female in an endurance sport allows for a real conversation and response.

As part of this conversation, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s okay to reach out for help and support when you need it. I work with a sports psychologist, Kristin Keim, year round to dial in the mental side of racing. While diet and nutrition has not been a huge part of our work together, knowing that I have a support system in place in case I ever begin to struggle with body image or disordered eating is really important. In her words, “athletes need to open up and create the space for an honest dialogue about creating healthy body images and habits within the context of sport.” That also means creating the space for athletes who need it to seek help from professionals without judgement.

For me personally, just seeing other female athletes talking about nutrition and body image has removed a lot of uncertainty and encouraged me to revisit its place in my own life. Instead of thinking there were unspoken rules about what athletes should and shouldn’t eat, I felt like I could start having an active and more accurate conversation about what fuel helps me be the strongest, healthiest, happiest athlete I can be.

With a great team around me and access to so much more knowledge, I now feel I have the freedom and support to learn what the best choices are for me and my body. When I am in doubt or questioning what will be the best thing for my performance and body, I have people to turn to who understand my concerns but provide knowledge and support to point me in the right direction while maximizing my performance. I continue to think daily about how I can continue to have a positive, healthy relationship with food and my weight as my body changes from season to season and year to year. Sometimes being healthy means eating an extra serving of protein before bed, sometimes that means eating a taco, but it always means seeking out informed options that make me both a happy and healthy human as well as a strong and lean athlete.

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About the author

Kate Courtney is a professional cross-country mountain-bike racer for the Specialized Factory Team and is the 2017 U.S. national champion. Off the bike, she’s a self-described “huge nerd” with a degree in human biology from Stanford University. She’s a fan of any and all outdoor adventures, but is mostly in it for the snack breaks. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.

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