After discovering most of our top female rowers were at risk of RED-S syndrome, Rowing NZ and its coaches helped the athletes take up a challenge to eat more. The glittering results in Tokyo speak for themselves.
With an Olympic silver medal draped around her neck, Brooke Donoghue felt content. “I knew I couldn’t have given any more over five years. Even though we wanted gold, I felt completely content.”
When she had lined up for the final of the women’s double sculls on Tokyo’s Sea Forest Waterway with Hannah Osborne, Donoghue knew she couldn’t have been fitter or stronger.
And she credits that feeling to a change in mindset around female health and eating, at the top echelons of her sport.
Three years ago, Donoghue was found to be in danger of under-fuelling her body for the amount of intense training she was doing on the water and in the gym.
But she wasn’t alone. Across Rowing New Zealand’s high performance programme, only one woman was eating enough.
The athletes were putting themselves at risk of suffering from RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. It’s a syndrome with serious health consequences, which isn’t uncommon with New Zealand athletes.
But with the help of nutrition and physiology specialists, and with the buy-in of their coaches, the female rowers changed the way they looked at food, and the way they saw themselves.
They were able to turn that into being faster, stronger and happier. So much so, that at the Tokyo Olympics, rowing was New Zealand’s most successful sport, and four female boats won medals.
“Now I understand being lean isn’t a priority, being strong is,” Donoghue says. “It doesn’t matter what I sit at on the scales. It’s opened us up to understand it’s not about a number but more about a good feeling, knowing we’re fuelling well.”
While she’s been in MIQ in Christchurch (she went home to Cambridge on Monday), Donoghue has been putting the finishing touches on a book she’s writing with Olympic canoe slalom legend, Luuka Jones, to help spread the message to other young women on the importance of eating.
It all began soon after the 2016 Olympics. As part of a health survey, female rowers in the elite programme were asked: ‘Are you menstruating?’
Christel Dunshea-Mooij – the senior performance nutritionist at HPSNZ and lead for rowing – was surprised when she received the answers. “We actually found out many of our rowers weren’t menstruating, and we didn’t know why,” she says.
“RED-S could have been one reason, or they could have been using oral contraception. The Olympics are a really stressful time and that could have been a reason too.
“But as a nutritionist, my first thought was fueling. So we started exploring that.”
In 2018, Dunshea-Mooij tested the female rowers to find out their energy availability, which she describes as “the energy available to the body – from food – after the costs of exercise have been accounted for.” So what’s left over to run your body for the day.
The athletes made a food diary to see how many calories they were consuming, used their watches to calculate their energy expenditure, and had DEXA scans to determine their fat-free mass.
“When we saw the data, we were shocked,” Dunshea-Mooij admits.
She drew up a risk model based on the IOC consensus statement on RED-S, with three coloured zones – red for high risk, orange for moderate risk, and green for low risk of RED-S. “Only one of our females was in the green,” she says.
RED-S can cause issues with bone density, fertility, immunity, and metabolic and cardiovascular function. (Most of the rowers had “excellent bone density”, also measured by the DEXA scan.)
Dunshea-Mooij presented her findings to the coaches of the female crews, including double sculls coach, James Coote (pictured above between Osborne and Donoghue).
“James was excellent. I said: ‘We know this now, so what are we going to do with it?’” Dunshea-Mooij says. “And James said ‘Okay, we can only look at it positively’.
“So we changed the wording. Where we would usually say ‘If you don’t fuel enough, this is the result’, instead every communication became ‘If you fuel according to the work you’re doing, this is the result you’ll get’. It was an excellent approach to behaviour change.”
Coote says the message that female athletes need to eat enough for the training programme they’re on wasn’t new. “It’s been there all the way. But we have better tools now to have better conversations around it,” he says.
“Ideal race weights were really a proxy in the past for being healthy and in a good position. You heard stories that ‘leaner is better’. But we’ve got better insight now, so we don’t use those terms.”
What really struck Coote, though, was that the New Zealand rowing team had performed well over the 2017 season, with women’s crews winning four medals at the world championships (gold for the double sculls and pair, silver in the lightweight double sculls and bronze in the eight). But now he could see there was more that could be done to help make the female athletes faster and stronger.
“We’d just done pretty well, and here was information saying we could do even better if we can just get them to fuel more,” Coote says. “We can push them harder, train them longer, and there will be less injuries and happier athletes.”
“We want to be good role models when it comes to female health. To show girls at high schools that you can row and be healthy” – Jackie Kiddle.
Initially there was some scepticism among the athletes, who’d been fed the “lean is better” philosophy throughout their careers.
“The biggest job for me was to get rid of the perceptions,” Dunshea-Mooij says. “Once they believed it themselves, with the coaches encouraging them to refuel on a hard week, they were really engaged.
“The messages were individualised, based on their likes and dislikes. Have another glass of juice, have another pot of yoghurt, have another sandwich. The average woman in this rowing programme will consume 5000 kilocalories a day, which is twice as much as the normal population. So if they eat seven meals and snacks a day, they generally get there.
“They also hold each other accountable now. They almost report back if they think someone hasn’t eaten enough.”
And the results have been obvious, Coote says. “There were a number of world-class athletes already, but they’re just taking it to a completely different level now. We were really surprised at the training load we can put in. And the results have lifted as well.”
Donoghue was one of them. In 2019, she and her double sculls partner at the time, Olivia Loe, regained the world title they first held in 2017.
When testing began, Donoghue found herself in the ‘at risk’ orange zone. “A lot of people were in orange and red and got a shock because they thought they were eating lots,” she says.
“All of a sudden the message amongst us all was ‘No, we need to eat more; yes, we can eat more.’ That drove the change.”
Jackie Kiddle, the current world champion in the lightweight double sculls, was also in the orange after the original testing.
As a lightweight athlete, the change in fuelling was a big shift, she says. “It used to be you ate less to stay a lightweight. But to be able to see I could eat a lot more and then train harder – and stay at the same weight – was eye-opening. It made a huge difference to the way I trained, because I could work harder.”
Before 2018, Kiddle says low energy availability was talked about a little, but not among the athletes or the support staff.
“Things would pop up from past athletes who went on to do nutrition degrees. But it was only in the last few years that it was raised. About what we can do to avoid it and be better athletes, rather than looking out for symptoms of RED-S,” she says.
“And it’s not just us who’ve learned. The coaches have made big shifts in the language they use talking to us and the way they see us as female athletes. We have a lot of male coaches in rowing and they’ve really taken it on board.”
Initially, the elite female rowers worked with nutritionist Dunshea-Mooij, physiologist Caroline MacManus and performance psychologist Lou Davy. Other specialists came in to provide information on different elements affecting a female athlete – including smear tests, ovary health and iron levels. “It’s cool it was athlete and support staff driven,” Donoghue says.
Earlier this year, a survey of over 200 elite and development female athletes in New Zealand, by the WHISPA (Healthy Women in Sport: a Performance Advantage) group, revealed 47 percent of those athletes had been diagnosed with iron deficiency at some point in their career, and 23 percent had suffered a stress fracture.
The change in Kiddle’s strength was immediate, she says. In 2019, she and Zoe McBride won the world title.
“Zoe and I saw a huge shift in our performance just from basically eating more and being more aware of what energy we were putting into our bodies,” she says.
For McBride, though, the years of under-fuelling and over-training to meet the 57kg weight limit took their toll and she retired from rowing earlier this year. Having been diagnosed with RED-S – which affected her bone density, menstrual cycles and mental health – her wellbeing was the major factor in her decision, she told LockerRoom. (“We now know better, to ask the right questions,” Dunshea-Mooij says.)
Kiddle couldn’t find another partner for the lightweight double sculls, which meant missing the Tokyo Olympics. But she’s now moved into the lightweight single scull, and finding she’s going “faster than I’ve ever gone because I’m eating properly.”
Another change in attitude has allowed female rowers to feel comfortable with their strength.
“Being strong has often been seen as a masculine thing in sport. But in rowing, throughout our athletes and staff, the push to be stronger is a positive thing for women too,” Kiddle says.
“As a female athlete, I want to be strong, so I’ve made some massive gains in the gym. I can see my strength performance getting better as well. Our physiologist helped us change the way we look at ourselves.”
Donoghue agrees. “I feel confident in what I’m doing and almost more confident in my body because it’s doing what I want it to do,” she says.
Our top rowing women are now tracking their menstrual cycles, too. Not only to check on their health, but to use it to help with their training.
The WHISPA survey also showed one third of Kiwi female athletes reported their menstrual cycle was affected by their training volume.
“It’s the way of the future,” Dunshea-Mooij says. “We don’t know a lot about how it affects performance yet. But we do know that in five years’ time, like we did with RED-S, there will be more research for us to follow.”
Coote, who’s been coaching for 20 years, says 10 years ago people would have raised an eyebrow if he’d asked about a female athlete’s period. “But now, my toolkit is big enough to have some of those conversations; to know when a flag comes up, I need to get the experts in.”
Dunshea-Mooij jumps in: “We need to educate our young coaches to say if a 15-year-old girl doesn’t have her period, that’s not okay. That they need to tell someone they can trust.”
Kiddle appreciates the change in attitude towards training based around menstrual cycles. “The coaches have really taken that information on board, and tried to learn what to look for in us at different times of our cycle; when to push and when to pull back based on the cycle. That’s been a really cool thing,” she says.
Both Donoghue and Kiddle want to see all they’ve learned in the past few years on the importance of fuelling filter down to younger female athletes, and their parents.
Donoghue’s approach is through a vegetarian recipe book she’s written with Luuka Jones (who’s vegetarian) and Dunshea-Mooij’s nutrition expertise.
“Hopefully it will be a great platform to share the knowledge. It’s about sustainability and animal welfare, and we’ve tried to include as much as we can about how important fuelling is to our success,” Donoghue says. Kiddle, a part-time artist, has contributed drawings to the book.
Kiddle wants to speak to schools about her experiences. “I’d like to see this support expanded down to high school girls, to take away the stereotypes of strength being masculine, or not eating because you need to look a certain way,” she says.
“It means a lot to us as elite athletes because we want to be good role models when it comes to female health. To show girls at high schools that you can row and be healthy.”