A few weeks ago we received a message from Ben Robertson. Ben has been one of New Zealand cycling’s fine domestic riders, racing up and down the country in some of the country’s biggest events. He’s also a man on a journey, struggling through the reality of REDs. This is his story.
Christchurch cyclist Ben Robertson is a former winner of the Timaru Classic; part of the Calder Stewart Cycling Series. You’ll see his name in the results at the SBS Bank Tour of Southland, a race he last finished back in 2017. But this is not his story of success; this is his story of struggle. Most, if not every rider has one, and often these struggles are fought in secret. Ben has had the courage to share his struggle publicly.
Ben is, in his own words, ‘fairly competitive at the top end’ of New Zealand’s elite level cycling scene. Married with 2 children, he has a few plates to spin, but it is the plate of elite level nutrition that has been the cause of his strife. “My battle with REDs and eating disorders has been going on for several years and I am just wanting to make sure its talked about more; especially in New Zealand, to make it more real for my peers in the cycling community, so others don’t fall into the same state of mind as I have, as it’s very hard to come out of,” Ben told RoadCycling.
When you hear the term ‘eating disorder’ you may think quickly to images that depict anorexia, or terms like bulimia or obesity; more on that first word later. REDS stands for relative energy deficiency in sports, and it’s something that Ben helped unpack for us. “It’s essentially low energy availability, brought to a head from a large deficit in diet compared to energy expended. It is more widely known as the female athlete triad,” Ben explained.
“The deficiency in energy affects metabolic rate, menstrual function (hormonal or as in men testosterone decline), bone health, immunity, protein synthesis and cardiovascular health.”
There comes a point . . . where your rational thinking gets distorted from the depletion and the brain chemistry changes and all you can think about is being lighter and lighterBen Robertson
Speaking in simple terms, this is weight loss turned bad. Men and women who have a need – or perceived need – for weight loss have the following essentially simple formula to follow: calories burned must be greater than calories in over a period of time. But how much weight loss is healthy weight loss? At what point are we eating away not at excess fat, but at necessary stores that are not just needed to make it successfully to the finish line at the sharp end of a race; but are needed to function.
“It happens when the energy expended is far greater than the athlete’s caloric intake. This is fairly prevalent in endurance sports where power to weight ratio is important. An athlete aspiring to be a certain body weight or to just be as lean as possible can easily fall into this trap.
“It is picked up sooner in female athletes as the main indicator is a loss of menstrual function (missing periods). In male athletes it is much harder to detect and blood tests are the main way of investigation.”
Ben’s REDS, being in that harder-to-detect category, only came to light after consultation with a nutritionist and doctor. “I was experiencing problems with my health and disordered eating,” Ben said. “This started several years ago and has relapsed several more times. It started when I was advised I could stand to lose a couple of kilos to be more competitive. Being very focused and driven I took this comment to the limit, whereas most other people would brush it off. It first started with a vomiting bug. I lost 2-3 kilograms and kept the weight off and continued training. The thinking from then on being ‘imagine how good I would go if I lost more weight’ and it escalated from there.”
Cycling at any sort of competitive level means that the words ‘power to weight ratio’ are never too far away when it comes to querying how to improve. Unfortunately those four words can be radically misunderstood, and without wise guidance through those four words from learned and experienced professionals improving power to weight ratio has the potential to open a destructive can of worms. That was the case for Ben.
The problem was partly hampered by the fact that it all started so well, and looked like a successful strategy. Winning the Timaru Classic, 4th in Le Race, winning multiple club races all served to provide the impression that by cutting back on food and nutrition Robertson had struck upon marginal gains.
“Social media has a huge part to play; in the younger generation in particular. Constant uploads of muscular physiques or very lean and vascular athletes and the thoughts of ‘well they look like that then maybe I should if I want to be competitive’.”Ben Robertson
“These races were all whilst struggling with REDs. This made me think if I’m winning races back to back and starving myself during the week then it must be the secret method haha!” Ben reflected.
“It spurred me on further as long as I was doing well. There became a point each time however that my power and recovery plateaued and then took a massive drop. Then it was hard crawling out of that hole. I usually only ever put weight back on after a set back or crashed that left me unable to exercise.”
“As I was losing weight I was holding power and performing better so I thought why not lose more? I would ride for 4-6 hours sometimes without eating breakfast and just water on the bike. I would do this more if I felt I had too much to eat the night before. I would also have some days where I was just fuelling on caffeine without breakfast or lunch and holding out until dinner whilst riding 2-4 hours during those days. I felt fatigued but still able to push myself to perform.
“I came to a point where my performance dropped massively and there was no coming back. I was constantly fatigued, my power for certain efforts dropped by around 30% and day-to-day activities were hard, because I was now underweight and under-fuelled. My rational thoughts went out the window.”
“It spurs you on but there comes a point in the starvation (essentially) where your rational thinking gets distorted from the depletion and the brain chemistry changes and all you can think about is being lighter and lighter; like a switch of a drug user or alcoholic. It’s very hard to tell someone with these problems to just stop drinking or just stop using. It’s not as simple as that once you’ve gone too far. So telling someone why don’t you just eat more isn’t really going to help or change anything.”
What started as an eating and nutrition issue was not something that simply affected nutrition and digestion. The effect of REDS is something that invaded far more areas than time directly before, during and after riding. “The eating disorder was in full swing and would return several times in the following years. My heart rate was also alarming. It would rest around 30bpm and I would stop breathing momentarily during sleep and startle to wake several times a night. I lost all sex drive, was constantly moody and everything would revolve around food and constantly thinking and anxious about my next meal,” Ben said.
“My mental health was greatly affected and had a huge impact on my life. My wife and family were greatly affected by this and prompted me to seek help. This is when is started seeing a nutritionist and doctor who revealed to me my low testosterone levels and unusual blood results. I stopped producing testosterone and other hormonal levels dropped. My body was in survival mode and my daily requirements in terms of energy for my vitals were being compromised.
After these alarming results were revealed to me I was advised I had REDS and essentially telling me that I was anorexic and something needed to change before it became more serious.”
“If you suffer alone it may become very dangerous and lead to much more serious mental health and physical health issues, as the only one controlling your situation is you and whilst in this state your rational thinking has very much gone out the window. Talking about it is key.”Ben Robertson
The medical professionals were the great and necessary wake up call, however, the battle was far from over for Ben. “With my brain still not functioning rationally it took months and a crash while racing to see my eating and health return to normal,” he said.
Ben’s courage in telling his story is that it is a story that has so far not run its course. REDS is not something that affected him, it’s something that still does.
“REDS has relapsed recently and has now affected my heart. I’m having arrhythmia and palpitations at rest in particular and an overall feeling of extreme fatigue and all the other symptoms that go with under-fuelling including hormone imbalances,” Ben told us. “So it is still a very real battle for me and I’m sure it will always be in the background but will just have to be monitored closely as I try to realise the triggers and how to battle them.”
The battle in REDs is not helped by social media, a forum that all too often presents a distorted ideal of what it is to look successful or athletic. Ben sees this side of things as being a massive influence to the wider community of riders “Social media has a huge part to play; in the younger generation in particular. Constant uploads of muscular physiques or very lean and vascular athletes and the thoughts of “well they look like that then maybe I should if I want to be competitive”. Constant uploads of food related posts and obsessions over different diets etc I feel can contribute to unhealthy eating habits (not to say that it encourages disordered eating as it may work for some in the most part),” Ben reflected.
So what is easier? In the pursuit of excellence on a bike power to weight ratio is regarded commonly as being the secret formula towards success; so which side of the equation is easier to achieve. “It is easier to increase power through proper nutrition and eating, obviously. Improving power whilst having disordered eating (or in energy deficit) however is much harder; almost impossible. You can maintain power through your weight loss to a certain point giving you much better power to weight and leaner body mass and this may help particularly on climbs but even then I still feel you lose some of your flat power and suffer more in windy conditions. The power may be fine in the whole and have great results, but then it can drastically drop and at this point you know you have gone too far and it may take months to crawl out of that hole. The focus on power to weight in cycling is prevalent but in regards to the terrain and types of racing here in New Zealand I don’t think it’s essential, as compared to if you were in France or Italy and you were a GC rider.”
Ben is not out of the woods, but he is finding his way, and in dealing with his difficulty, as with any serious problem, it’s his resolve not to do it alone that seems to be reaping the biggest rewards.
“The main principle that I find is crucial for me is having a stable and supportive network of people around me who know what I’m dealing with. It’s important to make sure someone knows of your issues so that if you start to waiver in your quest to return to normality and the reality that they may be able to help you realise the signs that you’re falling back into that trap and put you back on track.
“If you suffer alone it may become very dangerous and lead to much more serious mental health and physical health issues, as the only one controlling your situation is you and whilst in this state your rational thinking has very much gone out the window. Talking about it is key and this is why I’m doing this interview so that other athletes don’t fall into the same ways that I have as it can affect you for the rest of your life. Disordered eating and mental health I feel never disappears, it is always lingering but is more about managing it and knowing the signs and seeking help when this happens.”
We thank Ben for his courage to speak up and lift the lid on an issue that is seldom spoken of in our circles of cycling. If you are aware of a potential struggle with REDs then please see your local healthcare professional.