September 2012

Out on a limb: Surviving the Triad

Jordana Bieze Foster, Editor

I set foot in a gym this summer for the first time in 14 years. I was nervous, but not for the reasons you might think. I wasn’t worried about not knowing how to use the equipment, or being less fit than other members, or the possibility of running into someone I knew. What I feared was that the need to exercise would take over my life. Again.

The female athlete triad typically develops during adolescence. For me, it started in junior high, when I first started tracking the calories I was burning during swim team workouts and adjusting my eating habits so my caloric intake was always lower. But I’ve learned that the Triad isn’t necessarily something you just outgrow.

I knew about the Triad as a teenager, of course, but only as the stuff of after school specials, like a drug addiction or kleptomania. The Triad was a stigma among teen athletes, something that would be unthinkable in a seemingly normal, well-rounded student-athlete like me. So when it did happen, I made sure
nobody knew.

By changing its Position Stand on the Triad (see “Triple threat: The female athlete triad and injury risk,” page 16), the American College of Sports Medicine has taken what I think are significant steps toward making sure girls like me don’t continue to fall through the cracks. The key update to me is the term “low energy availability,” which replaces “disordered eating” as one of the three Triad components. In terms of perception, the two terms are like night and day. “Low energy availability,” which leaves open the possibility that an athlete is simply unaware that her caloric output is exceeding her intake, seems more like a training issue than a psychological failing.

I grew up believing that exercise was not about having fun or being part of a team. For me, despite never having been overweight, exercise was first and foremost about weight control. But I’m a competitive person, and I remember being frustrated after reaching a point in high school where my swim times were no longer improving despite the hours and hours of hard work I did in practice. If someone had explained to me the connection between low energy availability and athletic performance, it might have made a difference.

After my teen years were over, I gave up swimming and embraced the gym, but the pattern was the same. Every day, I obsessively tracked the StairMaster’s digital readout of calories burned, and missing even a single workout made me feel like a fat failure. And my immune system was a wreck—it seemed I always had a cold. The only solution was to quit cold turkey.

I’m now about 20 pounds heavier than I was in college, and it turns out that’s not the end of the world. I’ve tried to teach myself that exercise doesn’t have to be about calories, that it can even be enjoyable. I’ve explored yoga, hiking, and kayaking. And when my husband joined the local gym, the idea of lifting weights actually sounded like it might be fun.

And, after that first nerve-wracking day, it has been fun. But I still steer clear of any machine with a calorie counter. The Triad has a very long memory.

One Response to Out on a limb: Surviving the Triad

  1. dennis finch says:

    I am a 72 year old male. I took my first ballet class at the age of 60. Ballerinas and ballet males are far more destructive in training, then triad women. That type of event over stresses the body and is not healthy. My first sucess as an athlete was a track, football schlorship at a military school. Later a state level weight lifter at the U of Fla. training with the track team and future NFL football players. Missing one workout is not important. Find good bodies to train with is important. They are rare. 1 in 10 or 100. Seek them out.
    Last night Sabar dance class. Search “youtube.” Today weight lifting. Tomorrow, Rolfing. Friday, Chiropratic with a 50 year old national level body builider. Then ballet class with Katwildish.con at Alvin Ailey, 54 St. and 9th ave, NYC.
    Presently, I am designing a pointe shoe for ballet, with not weight on the toes.
    Call 201-541-7708 or stop by one of my classes. They say, that new 70 is the old 50. I am the only one in NYC. I always train like a good 20 year old.
    Performances: Camara West African at Alvin Ailey, Ballet with Katwildish at Alvin Ailey, Ballet at Dance Theather of Harlem. Dunham at Lincoln Center, Barzilian at Carnigie Hall. Mix it up. Cross train.

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