Former pro Nikki Brammeier on cycling’s unhealthy obsession with weight
Nikki Brammeier raced professionally both on the road and in cyclocross. Her cyclocross palmares includes four British national titles, fourth overall in the World Cup standings in 2017-2018, third overall in 2015-2016 with a win in Namur that year, and too many podium finishes to count.
On the road side Brammeier rode for the top team in the world, Boels-Dolmans, in 2016 and 2017 where she predominantly rode in support of Lizzie Deignan. Brammeier also rode for Team GB at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in 2016.
After leaving Boels-Dolmans in 2017, Brammeier started her own cyclocross project Mudiiita with the goal of encouraging the growth of cyclocross in the UK. She stepped away from racing in 2019 when she gave birth to her daughter. In the years since her retirement, she has been open about the various struggles that accompany racing at the top of the sport.
One of the topics Nikki has been open about is body composition and the over-hyped desire to be skinny without considering the ramifications. Below she tells the story of her career in relation to her health, and more specifically, her experience with RED-S.
The warning signs were all there, and yet I still didn’t realise I had RED-S until my career was over. In all honesty, I don’t even think I knew what it was.
RED-S is defined by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as “impaired physiological functioning caused by relative energy deficiency and includes, but is not limited to, impairments of metabolic rate, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis and cardiovascular health.” The underlying factor leading to this impairment is low energy availability (LEA), where an athlete has inadequate energy available to meet basic physiological needs.
During my career I only ever had snippets of information on fuelling. I never had full support or enough understanding for any of it to matter. It was never me asking what I could eat to improve my performance; it was always weight I was thinking of. Over time, my relationship with training and fuelling became unbalanced. I knew at points I had a disordered way of thinking about food, but when the majority of your peers have the same thoughts and habits it all becomes normal.
In 2019 I retired from cycling. By that point, and luckily for me, I had found enough help to finish my career happy, healthy, with a regular period, and at the top of sport. I had a real understanding of what it took to train, fuel, and recover in order to perform. It wasn’t until the months after I had given birth to my little girl that I finally realised what I was experiencing during racing were symptoms related to and more than likely, RED-S. My behaviour around food, consistent injuries, mood swings, lack of periods – pretty much every symptom there was, I had it.
RED-S had snuck up on me. I thought that to be the best rider I could, power-to-weight mattered more than anything. More than my happiness, more than my training, and most importantly more than my health. I had no idea what I was doing, I hadn’t recognised any of the negative effects I was experiencing. I didn’t know of the health or performance consequences, I just thought I was doing my best to be the best I could be.
No one ever said I shouldn’t diet, no one ever asked if I was healthy, no one asked if I had a period. I’m sure if they did, and if I was given information to help me understand my body at an earlier age, I’m sure it wouldn’t have gone as far as it did.
My thought process was that if I consistently ate less than I needed, I would be faster, leaner and stronger. I was asking my body to train hard, whilst at the same time depriving it of ever being able to adapt to training, or to recover. I probably never felt the full benefit of all the training I did. I was being paid to race my bike; I assumed it was my job to be skinny.
That’s what we are far too frequently led to believe. Don’t get me wrong, power-to-weight matters. Of course it does and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t have a realistic grasp of the sport. The issue is a considerable proportion of athletes today are ranking this quest higher than their health and enjoyment. We all know this is plain wrong, but why isn’t anyone taking notice?
By my mid 20s I had gone without having a period for three years. I thought this was normal. Why, you may ask? Because every step of the way I was told it was normal and “you’re not the only one”. A high workload, mixed with trying to find the optimal weight to compete at, didn’t leave me with enough energy to have a period. And yet I still assumed this was ok, all in the search for performance.
Up until I was about 18, I had raced in almost every cycling discipline going. At this point I didn’t train all that much and didn’t yet see cycling as a career. I just enjoyed riding and racing my bike and that’s what I did. Outdoors on the cross or mountain bike, on the road, indoors on the track. If I had a number on my back I just felt free. Racing my bike is what I loved; it was my passion.
At 18 I was offered a place on the Great Britain track team. I was at a bit of a crossroads and had to make a decision. Did I turn it down and crack on with my off-road racing or take the leap and dip my toe into track and road? The lure of the British Cycling system and its success won me over.
Early on and during my decision-making process I remember talking about my options ahead. We talked so much, but the one thing that stood out and hit me like a ton of bricks was being told that I was “too big” to race MTB and that I would be better suited to track. These were the people I had looked up to and had my faith in. I believed every word they said. Being told I was “too big” broke my heart. That moment made me feel as though my dream had been crushed. Needless to say, 18-year-old Nikki was very naïve.
That conversation stuck with me for a long time. Words matter. If you’re in a position of power they matter even more. Telling an 18-year-old girl she is too big probably started a career full of disordered eating habits. But to be honest, if it wasn’t then, it would only have come at some other point in my career. As I soon grew to understand, disordered eating is deeply ingrained in our sport.
We live in a culture where riders are focussed so much on weight that everything else just doesn’t seem to matter. Power-to-weight is becoming one of the most widely used phrases we hear in cycling nowadays. More often than not there seems to be an emphasis on the weight side.
How much weight do we need to shift? What are the latest fads that can help us burn fat? Low-carb diets? High-fat diets? It’s the TV commentators commenting on how “skinny she looks this year”, the photographer who snaps the pic of the dehydrated legs and hashtags it ‘lean’ – it’s everywhere. I think we all have a part to play in accepting we have an issue in our sport and driving a change of attitudes and accepted cultures.
During my career I, just like many, assumed my habits were healthy and normal. I was just watching my weight and being professional. I didn’t have anorexia, I wasn’t making myself sick, so what was the issue? Again, I hadn’t had a period for years.
A good coach these days knows this is about as big a red flag for an eating disorder or overtraining as you’re ever going to get.
Before I moved to Belgium, I already started to have a strange relationship with food. I’d train without eating on the bike, I’d skip meals, a recovery shake for lunch became normal. When I reached out for help with losing weight the resources and support weren’t there. I remember chats with Team GB nutritionists, twice a year if I was lucky. I’d get fed some brief information and be told to go away and try something. Never did I receive any ongoing support or education surrounding ‘fuelling’. It was all about ‘body mass’.
Being in Belgium taught me a lot. Outside of my comfort zone I learned so much about bike racing and life in general. My training stepped up, Matt [Nikki’s husband – ed.] was riding for HTC-Highroad at the time and had access to a pretty good network of support. I naturally tapped into that and soon decided that if I wanted to get to where I wanted to be I would just train like him.
I coached myself. For a while it worked out really well. Step by step, I went from top 20s in Cyclocross World Cups, to top 15, to top eight, until finally I was on the podium wining medals. I had lost a lot of weight and felt totally in control with what I was doing. It was during this time I stopped having my period. “Great,” I thought, “one less thing to think about.” I struggle to believe how naïve I was at times, thinking this was normal.
I knew someday we wanted a family, and of course if we wanted this I needed to have a period. So why had mine disappeared and how could I get it back? I went in search of help and answers. I took it upon myself to get blood tests and went to see a gynaecologist. This is what I was told: “We can see you’re not producing any oestrogen; this is why you’re not having a period … But it’s ok, you’re a professional and I guess you will be training a lot and you will be watching your weight so this is totally normal. I see it a lot.”
I walked out of that room thinking “OK, that’s fine then. If a doctor is also telling me this is OK I don’t need to worry.”
I soon began to understand there was a fine line between being in control of what you’re doing and having control in what you’re doing. The line between training, recovery and fuelling is very fine.
Over the next year I began struggling with training volume. It was harder to maintain consistency and I started to pick up frequent coughs and colds and injuries. I can vividly remember racing at the Milton Keynes World Cup with a substantial knee injury. I had pushed myself so much in the race I could barely walk up to the podium. It was more than likely linked to RED-S.
I felt tired, foggy and moody in general for the majority of the time. All the time I was struggling to figure out what was going on and all the time I was feeling like I needed to eat less, lose weight, train more to make things better. I didn’t appreciate how much I was trying to do and how little I was fuelling in order to do the work I was asking my body to do. It was starting to really affect me on and off the bike and eventually I started to ask myself more questions.
In 2016, after accomplishing a fair bit in CX, I wanted to give road a go. I’d always fancied a shot at the Olympics and thought a bit of a change of direction might help me find my happiness and feeling of wellbeing again. I landed on my feet and found myself at Boels-Dolmans. It was so satisfying to feel a part of something.
However, in cyclocross I was in control of everything I did – my training, my races, my fuelling. There were no team meals or hotel breakfasts – the majority of the time it was just me in my campervan with my Tupperwear pots. This allowed me to eat exactly what I wanted. This of course was totally the opposite when I joined Boels.
I was travelling more, competing in stage races – it was much harder to control what I was eating or even justify to myself that I was eating enough because I was with a group of strong women all with very different body compositions. I saw some of the girls eating so many carbs. There was me sat with my fistful of rice and half a plate of salad. I was so confused; I couldn’t understand how they were eating so much and yet looking so fit and lean.
It just so happened to be the riders with mountains of pasta at dinner who were smashing the races to bits. Maybe some of them had found the ‘secret’, I thought. Not all the riders were the same, but this was definitely the moment that made me question things and eventually get my head around the fact the car isn’t going to get you to work if you don’t put enough fuel in it!
I started to eat more around training. I didn’t go ‘all in’ but I was starting to figure out eating made me feel better. I struggled with many of the bad habits I had always had but I was going in the right direction at last.
I put on a couple of kilos, gained muscle, and felt better but would always then fall back into the habit of eating less if I felt I wasn’t in control. It took close contact with someone suffering and diagnosed with an eating disorder to make me realise the similarities we had and the hole I had gotten myself into. I felt completely lost.
It was at the time I began working with a sports psychologist and dietitian that things really changed. Over time I realised I had spent the majority of my career with RED-S. Overtraining and underfuelling. It took hold of me and I didn’t realise the consequences of what this might be doing to me for a very long time. You see the injuries as ‘part of the job’; you see the ‘hangry’ moments as normal. Same with eating less.
The last two years of my career saw some big changes. I finally saw food as a fuel. I found other interests alongside racing and spent less time focusing on a number on the scales and more time with friends and family. I ate way more carbs than I had previously and found that I was responding to training sessions better. I recovered better, my VO2max increased, my threshold increased, my sprint improved, and I was just in an overall happier place. I found the love for cycling again.
Week in week out I was at the front of races, fighting for wins. Consistently on the podium. I was two kilos heavier, but I was a stronger, leaner and happier bike rider. It took me a while to work it out but I finally realised I could be a healthy, happy bike rider and still win and podium at some of the hardest races on the calendar.
Fast forward two years since competing in my last professional bike race and I’m now a proud mum to a healthy 17-month-old girl. I’ve also found another passion in the form of coaching.
Having started Mudiiita Coaching just before retiring I feel it’s my duty to share some of the important lessons and experiences I learned throughout my career to help other riders progress. I want to help others understand what it means to stand on a startline healthy, happy and ready to give their all.
I will continue to talk about these taboo subjects and try my best to change some of these unhealthy cultures within our sport.