The Myth of the Athlete Bod

Around Canmore, the larches are turning colour and the temperature is dropping. This past week we were surprised with snow and although there wasn’t enough to ski, it got me excited for winter!

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Testing out the snow, wishing it was winter already

The past month has been quite a change of pace training-wise. The RMR crew and I have gone from a big volume block and a rest week straight into some of the hardest intensity of the year. We’ve been spending time in the pain cave doing what we call bike SSS (Ski Specific Strength). Basically, we wrap a line of bike tubes around our waist, hook the tubes onto our coaches’ bikes, and pull the coaches behind us for added resistance and effort during short intervals. (Learn more about it here: https://fasterskier.com/fsarticle/wednesday-workout-ski-specific-strength-with-rocky-mountain-racers/).

The workouts are super hard– I usually end up lying exhausted on the ground afterward. BUT, they’re some of my favourites because they help me transfer all that hard-earned power from strength training into speed on rollerskis. They’re also great for teaching my body to handle high levels of lactic acid, and they help reveal those technique and muscular weaknesses that show up when I get tired in races.

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Hiking Mt. Yam with Marte, AKA my sister from another country

With fall weather comes an aspect of being an athlete that many of us start to think about this time of year– the pressure to have the perfect “athlete bod” or “race weight” for the winter. Athlete nutrition, struggles with body image, RED-S, disordered eating, and eating disorders are things my teammates and I talk about quite a bit, so I wanted to share some thoughts on this as we get closer to race time.

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Evening runs with racing on the brain.

First off, these types of issues are common in high-performance sport. As athletes, we invest so much in ourselves; it’s natural to wonder what more we can do to become faster. We’re constantly analyzing and comparing our training and bodies to others, so it’s easy to get caught up in the small details and take things too far.

As an added stress, there’s pressure to really LOOK like an athlete– ripped, lean, and strong. This applies to both female and male athletes. As a female athlete, this can get even more complicated. There’s pressure to be stereotypically masculine (powerful, muscular, lean) AND stereotypically feminine (petite, slender, not too muscular). Obviously, a person can’t be all of these things at once. There’s this myth that being an athlete means you need to have an Instagram-perfect athlete body; we forget that social media is just the highlight reel of people’s lives.

I feel fortunate to have never struggled with disordered eating or an eating disorder, but I’ve had my fair share of moments where I’ve felt insecure because my body doesn’t look like Therese Johaug’s. I’ve also had times where I decided that losing 5lbs was THE THING that would get me to that next level in skiing (spoiler: it didn’t. Training hard and recovering well did.)

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Working on technique… one of the many things that will make me faster than having the perfect athlete bod!

Now, I’d be lying if I said that body weight doesn’t affect performance. But– and this is really important– it’s not NEARLY as important as the many, many other parts of being an athlete. Here are some things that will make you way faster at skiing than having the perfect athlete bod:

  • The quality of your training and the type of training you’re doing
  • Your technique and your ability to choose the right technique at the right time
  • Your fitness, your speed, and your efficiency
  • Your mental focus and strength in races and in training
  • Your tactics and strategy, and pacing abilities in racing
  • Your ability to go fast down hills, up hills, on transitions, and on flats
  • How much sleep you get, and your ability to mentally “turn off” and relax
  • How good you are at eating lots of healthy, delicious food that gives you all the nutrients you need to race and train even harder than you already do
  • Your ski testing skills and your ability to decide how much more or less grip you need on classic skis in a race

…and the list goes on. In the long run, or even this season, whether you weigh 5lbs more or less isn’t what will make or break your ski career. Becoming a faster skier is a long-term commitment that takes years of dedication! The more time we spend focusing on what really matters and the less time we spend stressing about the number on the scale, the more energy we have to improve our skiing. It’s a win-win!

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Be grateful for the amazing things your body can do!

Although I’m by no means an expert, I’ve found a couple of things over the years have worked particularly well in my quest to debunk my perceptions of the athlete bod:

  1. If you’re struggling, reach out. You deserve to be happy, so give yourself a hand and talk to someone– a friend, a teammate, a coach, your sports psych, a doctor– whoever you need. Personally, when I’m feeling insecure, the simple act of telling my teammates is the #1 best way to get some perspective and feel better.
  2. Focus on what your body can DO, not what it looks like. There are people in the world who would give anything to get to be able to run, hike, bike, and ski. You’ve worked so hard to make yourself strong and fit, so love your body for what it’s capable of instead of focusing on how it looks.
  3. Trust yourself. Your body knows what it needs. Don’t count grams or calories or portions– just listen to yourself and go with the flow!
  4. Eyes on your own plate. If you’re the only one who wants another piece of pizza, go for it. If everyone is having ice cream but you don’t want any, don’t feel like you have to eat it. You don’t know what other people’s days have been like, so don’t base your own decisions off their eating habits. Conversely, don’t judge them or comment on their own decisions.
  5. Don’t weigh yourself unless you’re confident that you won’t associate the number on the scale with your self-worth. I usually weigh myself once a week to make sure everything is within a normal range. However, at one point this July, I felt unhappy after weighing myself so I put the scale away for a few weeks. That worked like a charm, and I was able to bring my focus right back to training and recovery. For many people, this might mean getting rid of your scale altogether– everyone is different, so you need to find what works for you!
  6. If you’re a female athlete and have stopped getting a regular period, talk to someone about it. “Regular” can mean different things for everyone, but getting your period while training is possible for most women and girls, and can be a great monitoring tool for both coaches and athletes. I personally find it’s a great way to keep tabs on how my body is handling the training load.
  7. Support your teammates by setting a good example. If I know one of my teammates is struggling, it can be hard to know what to say or do. Since I’m not a trained professional, making suggestions or commenting on their eating habits has the risk of doing more harm than good. By setting a good example, I’m taking care of myself while also building an open, healthy environment for others to pursue health on their own terms.
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Opening up to someone is one of the best ways to gain perspective 🙂

I’m currently recovering from this intensity block and finishing up a psychology course, which will mark the halfway point of my undergraduate degree (YAY!). Next week I’ll be heading to Kelowna for an RMR camp, and then I’ll go to California for an NST camp and my last training block of the year!

Happy skiing,

– Maya.

P.S. I’ve also picked some my teammates’ brains on this topic… below are their words of wisdom!

Katie Weaver, RMR/Hollyburn: “High performance sport is hard enough already. You don’t need to make it harder on yourself by fixating on your flaws, not eating enough, and punishing yourself for when things don’t go as planned. Worrying about what you’re putting into your body 3 times a day is a lot of wasted energy. Use that energy to focus on your technique, mental health, and things that make you happy. The less you think about how you look in certain lighting, certain clothes, or your weight on the scale, the happier you’ll be. You might even ski faster, because a happy skier is a fast skier!!”

Erin Yungblut, RMR: “One thing that really sets cross-country skiing apart from other sports is the fact that A LOT of different body types can be successful. You only need to look at the lineup of women in a sprint final to see there are huge variations in height, musculature, etc. Skiing requires so much stamina and endurance, yes…but it also requires a huge ability to produce and sustain power. In other words, you want an engine AND badass strength! You need to be able to maximize the body type you were gifted with, and adapt your technique/tactics to your unique build/physiology. You can’t control your genetics, but you CAN do your best to be well fueled and recovered for every session/race, be relaxed about as many things in your life as possible, and thus put all your mental energy into tearing up the race course. Sara Renner once said she ‘eats to be strong, not skinny.’”   

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We all struggle sometimes… don’t hesitate to reach out!

7 thoughts on “The Myth of the Athlete Bod

  1. Great thoughts on important aspects of being an athlete, Maya! In my opinion, healthy eating doesn’t depend only on what you fuel your body with, but also on the mindset/approach to nutrition: I eat what makes me feel energized and ready for new challenges 🙂

    Good luck with the upcoming preparations for the season – keep working hard and doing what you believe in!

  2. Great article and advice! Fueling up adequately and feeling comfortable and confident go so much further than weighing yourself down with self doubt. Have fun in Kelowna!

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