As a figure skater I was pretty aware of how unreasonable societal and sport pressures can have pretty significant negative effects on the health of female athletes. Amenorrhoea,
low bone mineral density, and low energy availability are all concerns due to high energy expenditure and low energy intake due to pressures to be thin and have low body fat. When I first started dragon boating I didn’t think I would ever run into the same concerns, I mean it isn’t a sport where appearance matters right? The thing is that weight does matter. You want to be as strong as you can be but you also need to be light. A lighter boat takes less strength to move so light and strong equals fast right? Not if you don’t have the energy or the health to actually reach your potential.
Ong and Brownlee (2017) conducted a short duration study with a small number of participants and what they found should make every coach sit up and notice. They studied 9 elite female dragon boaters and while there were issues with the study, the general conclusions indicate that the athletes were barely consuming enough energy to meet their resting caloric needs let alone their needs for training. The authors believe that the device used to measure energy expenditure underestimated the amounts making the results more concerning; however food intake may have also been lower than normal to prep for race, and may have been underreported or underrepresented by the athletes.
There are serious health consequences to not meeting energy needs but they also found that the women had insufficient calcium and iron as well, which also has consequences.
After reading this, I have a few questions. Are male dragon boaters also prone to not consuming enough in order to meet weight goals? What’s the trade off in performance for this level of deficiency? And most of all, how do we change the standards so that an individual can be a healthy weight for their height and body type and level of training and performance without feeling like they’re disadvantaged next to someone else in making a line up?
If a sport like dragon boating can see this level of deprivation it is reflective of the bigger issue we have in society. So to end, I might point out that a woman whose body falls outside the norm has to go to a different section to shop, be that petite or tall or plus. I often shop in men’s wear, particularly for jackets, just to find something with enough space for my shoulder muscles and enough length for my arms. In a dragon boat, we all do the same stroke, we all aim to move the boat together, we NEED EVERYONE to be able to be able to eat enough to fuel themselves, their training, and whatever else they want to do.
So keep in mind that any athlete, regardless of sport, can be caught up in misinformation and general lack of knowledge. It is not safe to train and perform without eating appropriate types and appropriate amounts of food. Coaches, watch your athletes and make sure you know what a healthy body is and if you have doubts bring someone in to help, it is literally the health of your athletes that is on the line.