Body dysmorphia and disordered eating in cycling

*first published on The British Continental*

SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling rider Andy Turner explains his own troubled experiences with body dysmorphia and disordered eating and shares his tips on how to overcome them.

Body dysmorphia is something that seems to affect a lot of cyclists (myself included), to some extent or another. It’s so easy to compare our own data, power numbers, and body images with what other people choose to show on social media. We see someone who looks ‘leaner’ or someone who’s putting out more power, etc, and instinctively compare ourselves to them. This picture is a good example. 

Photo: Huw Fairclough

I’ve posted it before because I see it and think I look lean, that I look like what a cyclist should look like. 

I’ve also seen plenty of photos where my cheeks are puffy, I look like I have no chin, or I’m gut breathing and I think I look pregnant (see the one below, for example). Those images are ones where I’ve told myself I don’t look like a ‘cyclist’ and so I want nothing to do with them and that’s part of the bigger problem. I think like that because of what I’ve seen on social media: pictures of riders dehydrated and tensing like hell to get veins popping. In reality, it means nothing. It could be a picture from a good angle, edited in some way, or just a certain circumstance (dehydration for example). 

Andy at the 2019 Bourne CiCLE Classic (“I thought I looked puffy yet had my best Nat A result”). Photo: Craig Zadoroznyj

Mads Pedersen was once described as ‘too large’ to be a cyclist. Yet he won a world championship on a course that was far from flat. Remco Evenpoel was described as being too fat by his team manager while he was winning mountain stages and stage race general classifications. He was then quoted as saying he was trying to lose weight while he was recovering from a broken hip. The result – so it appears – is that he has not healed or recovered as quickly as might have been expected. This is just speculation, of course, but low energy availability, while the body is trying to repair itself, does not help healing and repair. The body needs to be able to function to sustain life and it will put that ahead of healing bones adequately. So low energy intake will lead to impaired recovery. Remco’s words, and the setbacks he is now potentially facing, do scream of disordered eating. I only hope he recovers well, is able to reach his full potential, has a healthy happy career and enjoys good health beyond that.

This leads me to another problem though: the apparent acceptance that, at the highest level, you have to be ‘unhealthy’ to a certain extent. I’ve heard it said that riders in Grand Tour teams have low bone mineral density and osteopenia. This would certainly be an explanation for why GC riders appear more prone to breaking their backs or other major bones when they crash. For winning the Tour nowadays, this would appear a ‘necessary’ sacrifice to make. These practices, however, are being followed by riders on seven-figure salaries with top medical professionals on hand 24/7 to ensure they don’t get it catastrophically wrong.

If you are racing anything that isn’t a grand tour, you do not need to be so lean that sitting down hard onto a wooden stool will fracture your pelvis

People see these lean, chiselled machines going up mountains at a pace that leaves you in awe. They want to do that; they want to look and feel like that. The result: they want to get lighter. They generally do this by eating less, counting calories and macros, and obsessing over food and drink. ‘Eating is cheating’ becomes the mantra on five-hour rides. The worst part is that I know of so-called ‘coaches’ who get their riders to follow similar mantras, which can lead to the riders developing disordered eating or can put them at risk of both short and long-term health problems. If you are racing anything that isn’t a grand tour, you do not need to be so lean that sitting down hard onto a wooden stool will fracture your pelvis!

Andy Turner (SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling) in the last major road race of 2020 – the Betty Pharaoh Memorial – before racing was suspended. Photo: Howard Goldberg

My worst experience of disordered eating was around 2015-2016. I spent the start of 2015 with a knee injury and couldn’t ride much. I couldn’t control my training and I couldn’t race so I turned my attention to controlling what was left of my regime: my diet. I ate maybe 1200kcal a day whilst walking excessively and got to 69 kg at 190 cm tall. On returning to riding, my aerobic engine was still decent, but I had no kick whatsoever. I even raced alright once I was able to, churning away like the diesel I had become used to being. All good, or so I thought. 

Come late spring I was screwed and couldn’t do much on the bike at all

2016 started well. I had done a lot of miles over the winter and was, aerobically, extremely strong. However, some of my winter riding had included seven-hour fasted sessions, purely for the goal of getting as lean as possible. I had heard how, because ‘you only burnt fat at low intensity,’ you didn’t need to consume anything else (this is utter bollocks by the way). My racing started well, as my power to weight was great and my hormonal balance hadn’t yet swung wildly out of control. Come late spring, however, I was screwed and couldn’t do much on the bike at all. 

I was able to get going again but, up until mid-2019, I was very much a big TT engine with no top-end. My testosterone levels were low, my haematocrit was in the mid-30s and my haemoglobin was so low I was put on iron supplements because my GP thought I must be anaemic with those values (not due to high plasma volume as can sometimes be the case in endurance athletes). The 2017 season was a good representation of this situation: over winter I’d put quite a bit of weight on as my testosterone levels were low and my metabolism had dropped. Going through this saga turned out to be a necessary evil as it caused me to seek help, which ultimately showed me the error of my ways. 

How did I overcome this? With a lot of difficulty… Meeting Dr Nicky Keay in 2018 was a big help when I underwent testing as part of her research into RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports). I had finally got things working better again and she filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge. 

Andy in 2020 (“When power PBs were coming, composition was better but I was eating more and timing it properly”) Photo: Orlagh Malone Gardner

I got further inspiration from a combination of much reading (I had started my degree in Sport and Exercise Sciences), chatting with a lot of experts, a little intuition, and an N=1 study on myself. This was based on the premise that, if you under-fuel, your metabolism drops, so if you over-fuel slightly and ensure greater energy availability, surely you can return it to where it should be? I therefore increased my daily intake by ~100kcal/day every two months. This also helped me to fully understand how much food you actually need to eat in order to function at your best, which went a long way to preventing a lot of the disordered eating practices I’d adopted. 

At my worst point, if I went out to eat I would take maybe half an hour of agonising over a menu before deciding what to eat, working out the fat contents, the kcal of everything and calculating how much I’d need to exercise (or not eat later) in order to ‘make up for it’. That was on the rare occasions that I actually went out, as I preferred to avoid any form of eateries as it meant not being in exact control of what I ate. I was a nightmare. 

I’m still not quite 100% there but I’m a lot better. I still prefer to go out to eat somewhere or have a ‘treat’ if I feel that I have earned it through exercising. However, I’m now OK with allowing myself what I regard as treats, be that a pizza or a chocolate orange. Currently, I still track calories (not necessarily a good idea…) and I eat around 2800kcal a day plus extra to account for whatever I burn through exercise. My power numbers are all up, my body composition is actually leaner now, I have greater muscle mass and my energy levels are high. 

The recovery process from disordered eating takes time and has to begin with a willingness to recognise the signs and accept that there is a problem

The recovery process from disordered eating takes time and has to begin with a willingness to recognise the signs and accept that there is a problem. Some signs to look out for are: 

  • obsessing over food choices
  • not eating enough before and during training (saving the calories up until later in the day) 
  • over-use of low carb or fasted rides

Regarding body dysmorphia, I would advise unfollowing social media accounts which focus on showing off alleged ‘leanness’. I’d also suggest not weighing yourself or looking at yourself in a mirror in the evening as, if you’ve been training all day, you’ll have inflammation from that. Additionally, if you’ve been eating throughout the day and you’ve refuelled properly for the next day, you’ll be full of carbs and water. This will naturally make you look bigger! For women, it’s important to remember that hormonal changes throughout the month can lead to bloating and you can look significantly different from day to day. This is entirely normal!

Andy Turner at the 2020 Betty Pharoah Memorial. Photo: Huw Fairclough

Please try to confide in someone if you are struggling or you have concerns. The irony is that, with body dysmorphia, we can more easily see when someone else is suffering from it but we often can’t help ourselves. It’s important to have a support network of trusted friends and/or family who can be honest with you and provide help and reassurance when you need it.

If you’re healthy and you’re happy, that’s much more important than how you look

Cyclists come in all shapes and sizes. ‘Compare yourself to your past self, not to someone else’s present’ was a great quote I saw recently. If you’re healthy and you’re happy, that’s much more important than how you look. Social media is a minefield, hence why I’ve included the ‘puffy’ image. Because in that race I was riding the best I ever have and got my highest National A finish to date: a top five. So, try not to compare yourself to others, have faith in yourself, and try to aspire to be the best version of you.  

2 thoughts on “Body dysmorphia and disordered eating in cycling

  1. Gerry McGarr

    What an interesting read BUT sorry that you have suffered in such a way. Look forward to meeting and giving you a ‘cheer’ or ‘bugle note’ ! when road racing starts again. Hope degree is going well and best regards to Mum. Gerry


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