As British Gymnastics introduces regulations about weighing athletes, should cycling take note?

While monitoring weight can be beneficial for performance and health, it can also trigger unhealthy relationships with food and body image

History was made last year when former elite acrobatic gymnast, Eloise Jotischky, became the first to win a civil case against British Gymnastics for the abuse she experienced in the sport. Jotischky told of her coach subjecting her to inappropriate weight management techniques and verbal harassment, to which British Gymnastics admitted full liability and eventually reached a settlement, with Jotischky receiving a full apology from the governing body's chief executive. Hers is not the only experience like this in gymnastics – a number of current and former gymnasts alleged mistreatment at all levels of the sport in 2020. And gymnastics is not the only sport in which such a focus on weight management can have dangerous consequences.

Speaking to Rouleur last year, amateur cyclist Julian Lino outlined some of the weight management techniques which he said were commonly used amongst domestic French race teams: “One of our riders stopped a five-day stage race after one day, so the sports director took his body fat percentage. He said he had a fat percentage of around 15, and then told him to go and ride every day of the race behind the peloton, so over 200 kilometres per day for the next four days, only eating fruit.”

“He was coming back empty and tired, then of course he lost weight and the sports director said that was good, but he was just so dehydrated, it was dangerous. But that’s the classic French way,” Lino said.

“I’ve seen young guys just eating carrots and apples on days when they were travelling, no proteins and no carbohydrates, on a rest day because an older director would say they had to have a jour des fruits [fruit day] as they weren’t riding their bikes.”

Other riders who raced for teams in multiple different European countries shared similar experiences, recalling anecdotes of having to send daily photos to their coaches who were monitoring their weight. One athlete explained that his team coach would regularly order kit for riders in a size smaller than they had requested with the aim of making riders feel self-conscious and driven to lose weight throughout the season. 

This sort of behaviour is damaging to cyclists of any age, but it is especially concerning when riders are still growing and developing throughout their adolescence and early adulthood. With the vast quantity of information now available to young athletes online, there’s a growing risk of impressionable athletes finding information about how professional cyclists monitor their weight and copying that, but without the correct tools to do so – education and conversation is crucial to ensure that these topics are being addressed in a safe and healthy way.

It was recently announced that British Gymnastics has introduced new policies regarding gymnast welfare to try and tackle the issue of young athletes being mistreated by coaches when it comes to managing weight. Under the new policies, children must be over the age of 10 to be weighed; gymnasts can only weigh themselves or be weighed by qualified sports scientists or medical practitioners who aren’t coaches with a clear, scientifically valid rational; and gymnasts must only be weighed for performance or growth purposes as part of optimal long term development and combined with another measure. These policies are mandatory, which now means clubs who fail to comply could face sanctions.

While gymnastics is a very different sport to cycling, with the average age of gymnasts in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics being 21 years and 11 months compared to cyclists generally peaking in their late 20s, there are certainly parallels that can be drawn between the two sport’s approaches to weight. As cycling develops and becomes more and more focused on the data and numbers behind training, and as online racing platforms such as Zwift ask riders to film weigh-ins for certain competitions, it’s becoming increasingly common for cyclists to develop unhealthy relationships with food and body image.Image: Zac Williams/SWpix

Monica Greenwood, former coach of the Great Britain women’s endurance squad, warns that education and conversation around fuelling is crucial to ensuring athletes can maintain a positive body image and relationship with eating.

“I think it's a really tricky balance. Naturally, a young rider who wants to be successful, they'll do their own research now. The power of the internet is a real strength, but it's also a dangerous thing. They can read and follow what professional riders are doing and that's not necessarily the same thing as you need to be doing as a developing athlete,” Greenwood explains. “I think it's really important to have good education about how to fuel and not to avoid it as a topic. I think the danger is that if a coach or a program avoids it as a topic, a studious rider is going to go away and seek their own information. I think you're better off having a good conversation about it than doing that.”

Greenwood, who will be racing professionally herself with Norwegian outfit Team Coop-Repsol in 2024, explains that building good habits around fuelling is crucial when working with younger athletes, ensuring that they understand how a calorie surplus can help them build muscle as their bodies develop. 

“A nutritionist that I worked with in GB who now works with Uno-X, he had a ‘good, better, best approach’. It would be about getting athletes to look at the ingredients more around what's actually in the food that they're eating. I think raising that awareness of what they're eating and what the nutritional value of it is, is really important,” Greenwood says. It's not about restricting, but putting the best things in.

During her time working with the Great Britain Team, Greenwood explains that it was always optional for riders to have their weight taken and do ‘skin fold tests’ which are a way of measuring a rider’s fat percentage. 

“We only took weight at testing so that would be, maybe twice a year. We’d always say that it's just information and there's no point comparing power between different people, because it is really about your individual package, what you've got as an athlete,” she explains. “We would also probably only do that from the junior ranks onwards and potentially towards the end of Youth A, so that’s 16 years old. There would always be the option to not do it as well.

“When I worked with the Podium Programme on GB, the riders didn't have to have skin folds, for example. There were a couple of athletes that didn't go through that and they weren't penalised in any way. It's just an option to have information if you want it and it's definitely not something that's pressured.”

Based on Greenwood’s 10-year experience as part of the Great Britain Cycling Team set-up, it appears that weight management on the national programme in the UK is a topic that is well discussed, with plenty of education on offer for riders. It’s important to remember, however, that there are a number of young riders who will grow up outside of the national programme in the UK who may not have the same support as those on the GB set-up. The aforementioned anecdotes from riders in foreign teams and with coaches outside of the GB programme are proof that the approach Greenwood discusses to weight management is not applied widely across all parts of cycling.

With this in mind, would it make sense for the UCI or national federations to implement blanket regulations like British Gymnastics has surrounding weighing athletes, to avoid any cyclists struggling with similar experiences to those of Jotischky? Greenwood argues that the most important thing isn’t pushing for regulations but rather more education and open discussion around weight at all levels of the sport.

“I think the danger of having a blanket rule is that it becomes not talked about. It's much better to be able to have an open dialogue about it and to be able to discuss it as a factor in performance,” she says. “As a coach, if you notice habits that you think are unhealthy it's really important that you have the confidence to be able to follow that up. If you notice that someone is continually under-fuelling through sessions or meals, you have a duty of care to bring that to the attention of the athlete or parent. Whereas I think if you just avoid it, there's a lot of risk in that too.

“With the gymnastics example, they're being weighed in group situations which leads to obvious connotations that are really negative. There are definitely points to be avoided and it needs to be dealt with one-to-one.”

As riders are signed with WorldTour teams at younger and younger ages (Cat Ferguson recently announced a four-year deal with Movistar at the age of 17, for example) it’s likely that riders will start taking their training more seriously at younger ages, too. With more access to coaching, equipment and training education, riders are also beginning to search more widely for every marginal gain – and the reality is that dropping weight in cycling can, to a certain extent, make you go faster.

Power numbers, data and metrics have become a huge focus in the sport throughout the last decade and this is an unavoidable trend, but, as Greenwood mentions, intervention when it comes to fuelling at a young age is crucial to avoiding unhealthy obsessions. While cycling might not yet be at the point of needing the same regulations as gymnastics, it’s important that issues around body image and relationships with food are addressed and taken seriously as early as possible, to avoid the sport veering further into dangerous territory.

“I think probably what the UCI could do is more specific education around a developing rider,” Greenwood says. “It’s important that they don't just look at what the top riders do. I've seen a teenager before looking at something saying that Chris Froome doesn't eat carbs and thinking, so maybe I don't need to eat carbs. It's like, hang on a minute, this is a totally different situation and point where each rider is in their career. Education and conversation about that is extremely important.”

Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix

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