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Fuel Your Strength Episode 428 Fueling for Better Performance w Pippa Woolven

Fueling for Better Performance w/ Pippa Woolven

What happens when you aren’t truly eating enough to fuel your ambitions and feel your best? Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, or RED-s, is a serious condition that can impact any active person regardless of their training intensity. Not only could RED-s impact your performance in the gym, but it can also play a huge role in your physical and mental health and well-being outside of the gym. This is why I have brought the founder of Project RED-s, Pippa Woolven, to the show.

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Key Takeaways

If You Want to Know More About RED-s, You Should:

  1. Educate yourself on the symptoms and signs of RED-s and how to avoid it
  2. Remember that RED-s can happen to anyone, no matter your level of training intensity
  3. Work with an expert who will not just dismiss your symptoms but will help you heal

Overcoming Struggle with Pippa Woolven

Pippa is an English Schools (x2) and British Universities Champion (x4), a former GB athlete, and now a Positive Psychology Coach (MSc) and Athlete Mentor. Over a decade of competing in international athletics while studying in the UK and USA, Pippa experienced her fair share of highs and lows, including RED-S. Several years after overcoming the condition herself, Pippa established Project RED-S to provide the resources she needed at the start of her struggle.

Fueling for Performance

Underfueling, disordered eating, and over-fueling can have huge impacts on the body and can impact anybody. While education has been lacking in the past, we are finally starting to hear this important conversation being had more and more. Pippa believes working to find a balance for your unique body composition and goals will help any active person avoid RED-s and overcome this common issue.

The answer isn’t just in the training. You have to think about the amount that you are eating in order to fuel properly. Your training, but also your health and well-being outside of the gym, will be better for it.

Awareness, Prevention, and Support

Project RED-s, and Pippa’s, mission is simple. To make sure that everyone who is active knows about the term RED-s, its signs and symptoms, and how to avoid it. She wants to embed the education of RED-s into coaching practices worldwide and into the mass consumption audiences on social media so that everyone can avoid low energy availability. She works to connect people with trusted experts who not only know what they are talking about but are passionate about helping people hear without dismissing their symptoms.

Have you struggled with RED-s? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.

In This Episode

  • Learn about Pippa’s personal story and what inspired her to create the RED-s project (5:22)
  • Understanding how the media has influenced the education of food, nutrition, and weight stigma (17:04)
  • How RED-s is affecting the ‘recreational sport’ crowd and why it is not only a problem for ’elite athletes’ (24:25)
  • ‘Athletic Aesthetic’ and the role it plays in low energy availability and RED-s (30:56)
  • Where to go if you are looking for fear of getting help with body image (39:40)

Quotes

“Over-training and under-fueling is just the perfect storm for a condition like relative energy deficiency in sport, RED-s.” (10:09)

“Topics like sports nutrition and sports psychology [used to be] almost reserved for the elite sports people, and now we see recreational sports people taking those kinds of things really, really seriously. For better or for worse.” (18:09)

“Eat the right amounts of the right foods, lift some weights, and try to think more holistically about your health and wellbeing.” (21:42)

“You do not have to be competing; you don’t have to even be doing anything structured; you just have to be moving your body, expending energy, to therefore need to replenish that energy with your nutrition.” (26:24)

“You might have the diagnosis and know exactly what’s wrong and what you need to do, but that is a very different ballgame to actually doing it.” (41:22)

“This has a huge impact on any active person’s life. And we need to just stop thinking so much about performance, especially short-term performance. Because it really is impactful on not just your physical health but your mental health too, and it takes a long time to get over something like this, which is why prevention is so key.” (46:37)

Featured on the Show

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Related Episodes

FYS 392: Understanding Total Daily Energy Expenditure 

FYS 391: What is Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-s)?

FYS 350: Are You Eating Enough? Low Energy Availability in Sport

Fueling for Better Performance w/ Pippa Woolven Transcript

Steph Gaudreau
So you’re sporty and athletic, and you love to challenge yourself and do hard things, but are you truly eating enough to fuel those endeavors and perform at your best? If you’re like many people who listen to this podcast, over 40 you’ve realized that something has to change with your nutrition, because if you want to perform well, you have to fuel but what happens when you don’t today’s very special guest is sharing about her personal story of difficulties with fueling how she overcame them, and eventually, how that inspired her to create an organization to raise awareness about this very common issue.

Steph Gaudreau
If you’re an athletic 40-something woman who loves lifting weights, challenging yourself, and doing hard the Fuel Your Strength Podcast is for you. You’ll learn how to eat, train, and recover smarter so you build strength and muscle, have more energy, and perform better in and out of the gym. I’m strength nutrition strategist and weight lifting coach, Steph Gaudreau, and why? Once you’re approaching your 40s and beyond, you need to do things a little differently than you did in your 20s. We’re here to challenge the limiting industry narratives about what women can and should do in training and beyond. If that sounds good, hit subscribe on your favorite podcast app, and let’s go what’s going on.

Steph Gaudreau
Welcome back to the podcast. Thanks so much for joining me on this episode before we go any further. If you’re loving the podcast, make sure you hit subscribe on your favorite podcast platform includes YouTube, where you can find video versions of these podcasts streaming. Ring the bell there for more notifications and subscribe as well. I’m really pleased on this episode to welcome a very special guest and to revisit a topic we have covered a couple of times in the past, but believe me, it bears repeating because there is always somebody who comes to me and says, I had never heard of this, or, you know what, I just needed to hear about this from your guest. There was something that clicked, and I am on now a quest to do something about it.

Steph Gaudreau
My special guest is a very important person. She is Pippa Woolven, founder of Project Red S. Not only is Pippa sharing her personal story, including how Red S impacted her and how she overcame it, but she’s also sharing why that inspired her to create an organization that was devoted to spreading awareness and providing tools and resources to individuals all about Red S, if you know me, you know the topic of this podcast, you know how important this is, but if you’re hearing it for the very first time, I want you to really think about how low energy availability could be impacting you, Not only in your performance but in your health and well being outside of the gym as well.

Steph Gaudreau
No matter what age you are, what level of athlete you are, or how serious or not serious you are about sport and competing. Please take this episode to heart before we dive in. If you listen to this episode and you’re like, Okay, I am ready to get to work. I want to take my strength, muscle, energy, and performance and take it up a notch. I want to take it to that next level. I want to feel like a badass, but at the same time, do it in a way that works with my physiology as an athletic woman over 40, with coaching and community support.

Steph Gaudreau
Then go ahead and check out Strength, Nutrition Unlocked, this is my group program. We’re going to lay out the framework for you and guide you as you implement and really customize it to all the things that you’re doing, your preferences, your likes, and the places you want to go with it. Then go ahead and get on board. You can start your process by submitting an application at StephGaudreau.com/apply. We would love to hear from you and see you inside the program. All right. Without further ado, let’s jump into this episode about Project Red S with Pippa Woolven, hey, Pippa, welcome to the podcast.

Pippa Woolven
Hi. Thank you so much for having me. I’m happy to finally be here. Absolutely.

Steph Gaudreau
I am really excited that we’re sitting down to have this conversation. You and I were sort of talking before recording. We’ve talked a little bit before back and forth on Instagram, which is really how I even got to know about what you’re doing in the world. And we talk a lot on this podcast about social media, the pros, the cons, and just this soup that we’re living in at this time in history, and I’m really grateful for Instagram, in this case, for kind of leading me to you all and what you’re doing.

Steph Gaudreau
So, you know, I think we’ll probably touch on some of the reasons that social media plays maybe not such a great role in some of the things that. You’re trying to do in the world, but nevertheless, I’m glad that you’re here and that we did get connected. I would love for you to share with the listeners your story. Why you know, what were some of the things that you went through in your own personal experience that led you to go on this mission with the Red S Project?

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, okay, well, I’ll start from the very beginning and just lead on to why I’m so passionate about this cause. But I guess I started sport in the way that we all do, just for the pure love of it, just enjoying being out with friends. And my family was super sporty, so they always dragged me along. I was the youngest of four children, and my parents also played golf, and squash, and hockey, and so we just loved sport. It was in our family dynamic from the very beginning. I ran for my school and eventually won the English school’s track competition, which was like a massive deal to me at the time, it was something that really ignited this spark that I loved the process of getting good at something, and I wanted more of it, so I went off to University in England, and I focused entirely on running, as opposed to other sports that I had maintained an interest In until that point, and I progressed really nicely over there.

Pippa Woolven
I was at the University of Birmingham, which is renowned for its running and awesome athletics environment. And I had a brilliant coach called Bud Baldaro, who’s a bit of a famous name here in the UK and probably in other countries too, but we had an awesome team atmosphere. It was super supportive. Everybody was pretty balanced. We partied as much as we trained, and we rested and ate, and it was honestly a very supportive and balanced environment. But it got to two years into that university setup, and I just felt like I was at the right point to make a change and to take my athletics to the next level. At that time, I was being offered scholarships from other universities in America, and I had been offered scholarships for a number of years, but I just never really felt like it was the right time, and I was so set on going to Birmingham that that wasn’t going to change or sway my decision, but after two years there, I felt like, yeah, it was time.

Pippa Woolven
So off I went to Florida State University, which was at the time, one of the best distance running schools in the States, and I was part of this incredible program. It was this very female, focused environment where we all trained as a team. We didn’t really interact much with the guys. We didn’t really socialize much outside of our running unit, and it was incredibly professional compared to what I was used to in the UK. And that is a huge difference between universities in the UK and the states. It’s just the level of professionalism and the high-performance environment. And so there, I guess I’d made quite a sacrifice to jump ship and go abroad and put my British degree on hold in order to do that. And I’d left a boyfriend behind. I’d left loads of friends and my coach and I really was stepping into the unknown. And at first, I thrived. I thought, wow, this is really it. You know, I’ve made it.

Pippa Woolven
I’m training and living and eating and breathing the sport that I care so much about. And after a while, I started to get better. I was, you know, dragged up, I suppose, by these other girls that I was being pushed by, which was a bit novel, because I guess in the UK, we’re a bit more spread out. You know, the standards are perhaps a little different, and you have to almost train with the guys at your local club if you want to have some decent competition. So it was really different to be brought along by these girls on their journey too. But unfortunately for me, it was also potentially a little bit too professional in that everybody was starting to talk about this concept of clean eating, which was so popular back then in 2012 2013 and it was an approach that was adopted by my coach and and the team, and we had these training logs, and in that we were supposed to record, you know, what we were going to cut back on in the lead up to the race season, and how we could maximize our potential for that season of competition.

Pippa Woolven
And I guess, just that focus on food being the first time I’d ever really considered my diet as an athlete, at least to the extent that I did, and more training, more intensity, and volume of training, was just this perfect storm. I know you’ve spoken about it a lot on the previous podcast, but just over-training and under-fueling is just the perfect storm for a condition like relative energy deficiency in Sport Red S and I didn’t know at the time that this condition existed, and it was only introduced in 2014 which was around the time I was starting to suffer from this initial signs and symptoms. But of course, when research is published, it takes a while for that to trickle down into mass awareness. So I struggled on with this seemingly disconnected myriad of symptoms, low energy, a growing preoccupation with my food and my body, these little niggles, injuries, and illnesses that kept coming back and took a while to go away, and eventually just this persistent tiredness that would consume my day to day activities, as well as my running, and I started to suffer from poor performances, and I think that was what really made me sit up and listen, you know, something’s wrong here.

Pippa Woolven
And sadly, at the time, that was all I cared about. I was there to train and to race, and I was so focused on that that I didn’t really notice the other issues that were occurring. So to cut a bit of a long story short, I eventually finished my degree in Florida, and I returned home in this pretty poor state of mental and physical health, and I set about looking for answers as to what on earth could be wrong. You know, I’d had blood tests and nothing had really flagged as abnormal, except low iron, which isn’t particularly uncommon in endurance athletes, especially. But I knew that there was more to it. I just had this feeling, that this isn’t just low iron. And actually I thought it was something much more sinister, something wrong with my thyroid, or, you know, I didn’t know what, but I wanted to explore it. So I went from doctor to doctor. Nobody, nobody knew.

Pippa Woolven
No one once suggested the female athlete triad, which was the precursor to Red S. Nobody looked into my bone density or asked me about my periods, and when I mentioned that I’d come off the pill and they hadn’t returned, no one said, Oh, that’s a bit of an issue. Let’s let’s dive into that. So it took a long, long time to get a diagnosis, and the reason I was able to was because I had done so much internet research that eventually I’d stumbled across a blog from another athlete who was experiencing something similar, and they had mentioned this term. And then I Googled Red S specialist and managed to find Dr Nikki Kay in London.

Pippa Woolven

Went to see her, and pretty quickly we had the answer. So that was my journey to this condition that impacted the majority of my 20s, and as a result of the long-winded diagnosis and then recovery process, I became really passionate about helping other people avoid these symptoms and this condition to begin with, because life’s too short to lose so much time to a, finding out what’s wrong and B, then trying to recover from things. That’s what led me to create Project Red S, which came about during lockdown when I was on furlough from my day job, and here we are now, a couple of years down the line, working hard to improve awareness, prevention, and support for relative energy deficiency.

Steph Gaudreau
What an incredible story, and I’m sure there are going to be many people listening to this who hear shades of themselves and their own experiences, or some parallels to what you went through. And most of the people who listen to this podcast are not in college anymore. They’re, you know, in their 40s or 50s, but yet, I have a feeling that so many will recognize either their early, earlier athletic history or even the present because we have so many people who are now grown through their 20s and their 30s and are now 40s, 50s, etc, who are still potentially dealing with some of these things. And so that’s one of the reasons why I really wanted to bring you on, is to just give this perspective of, hey, like, here are some of the things that I went through, your own personal story, and of course, that being such a powerful genesis of this new project that you started to make a positive impact.

Steph Gaudreau
You know, going back to something that you said earlier on, you were talking about your university in Birmingham, and how you guys had kind of a nice balance between partying and training, and, you know, you said you would eat and train and party and those sorts of things, was fueling adequately for track or whatever running you were doing. Was that ever part of the conversation? Because I heard, you know, when you went to Florida and your coach then adopted this idea of clean eating, that’s one thing but was there any sort of positive talk of the importance of fueling for athletes when you were back in the UK, in school?

Pippa Woolven
You know, I’m sure there was, but it was a time in my life when I wasn’t even conscious of the fact you could refine your diet, supposedly, in order to maximize your performance in sport, you know, if anything, I needed to be told to eat a few more vegetables and cut out on so many sugary snacks because my teeth were going to rot or something. So, you know, if there was, I wasn’t in need of any particular guidance at that time. Because I feel like when so many of us are growing up, we have a relatively balanced diet.

Pippa Woolven
When we’re brought up by at least my generation, we ate, you know, three meals a day, plus snacks, and that comprised carbohydrates, proteins, vegetables, you know, fats. No one really overthought it in my younger years, and actually it was the rise of social media and all this focus on the athletic aesthetic for me that became this problem when I moved away from home. So yeah, I don’t know if that answers the question very well, but it wasn’t a focus back then.

Steph Gaudreau
Yeah, yeah. And I hear that a lot and that’s that was my own experience. Even though I wasn’t formally in collegiate athletics, I kind of skipped that, skipped over that phase. I did stuff in high school, and then after I was out of college, I picked up mountain biking, but there was never any discussion even when I was in high school, of hey, this is why fueling yourself. This is why eating enough to match your activity level is so important, not even the sports performance, how can we maximize and get those extra few percentage points, potentially our extra few percentages out of our performance? It was, there was just no discussion about it at all.

Steph Gaudreau
It was like a vacuum and so much like you were talking about social media for you for I graduated in high school in 1997 so coming up through the mid-90s, the education, and I’m using heavy air quotes here, that we had about food was things that we learned about the food pyramid when we were little kids, or things that we read in magazines because the internet was just starting to become a thing. I remember getting on the internet at my friend’s house and I was 14, so we didn’t have even social media wasn’t really a thing back then, so we saw it in magazines and commercials, advertisements for things like Slim Fast and so then the 90s esthetic of extremely thin supermodels and those sorts of things. So I feel like that was our education, and we didn’t have that really strong voice of, Hey, we gotta eat enough. This is really, really important.

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, totally. And I remember, you know, topics like sports nutrition and sports psychology seemed almost to be reserved for the elite sports people, and now we see recreational sports people taking those kinds of things really seriously, for better or worse. But yeah, then you know it was just eat when you’re hungry. And you know eating disorders are for people who are vain or supermodels. And I never for a second considered the fact that they will be rife within sports settings too, and I don’t really think that was part of the conversation.

Steph Gaudreau
Then when you mentioned 2014 the first sort of IOC consensus paper on red being published, and that was sort of the first time there was this introduction of this term. And it was really new. And we think back to, I think it was ’92, when female athlete triad came into the literature. So we had this sort of gap of time, and you were mentioning all the things that you were personally experiencing, right, all the effects of low energy availability and lower energy intake. Do you feel like because, you know, what your experiences and potential symptoms were didn’t exactly just kind of line up and match up with the female athlete triad that things got missed over for you? Or do you think if there was a broader totality of here are all the effects, it would have turned out differently?

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, I actually count myself pretty lucky to have been struggling with this in the time that this condition was being talked about a little bit more, because, you know, I didn’t tick any of the boxes for the female athlete triad, or at least I didn’t know I did, because I was using the pill, I wasn’t having my bone density assessed, and I would never have identified with disordered eating, and I didn’t know what low energy availability was, it wasn’t really something I ever considered. So yes, if I had been presented with a broader spectrum of symptoms and been a bit more aware that this can impact anybody besides female athletes, I might have been more keen. To engage with the idea that this was what was the problem?

Steph Gaudreau
Yeah, for sure. And I hear that a lot where even kind of going into the perimenopausal years, people can sometimes have a lot of fluctuation with their menstrual cycle. Things can get really irregular. And oftentimes people will think, Okay, well, what I’m experiencing is down to this perimenopausal shift, but concurrently, sometimes they’ve got red s or at least chronic low energy availability going on, and so some of the things they’re experiencing are more down to the lack of appropriate energy intake. Have you seen anything kind of out in the world, like in your discussions with your advisory board and the people you’re talking to, the scientists, like, Have you run across anything in that realm where we’re sort of also thinking about now older athletes and how this might be affecting people?

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, I think there is a distinct lack of research in that, in that realm. And I’m looking forward to, I know that people are doing some amazing work as we speak, so I’m looking forward to seeing more and more come out. But no, you know, I get lots of emails from people through the project to say, look, I’m an older athlete, so I don’t know if I’m experiencing Red S, but could you direct me towards someone who might know, and it’s very tricky to ascertain whether that is the cause of their symptoms, or if it’s the perimenopause, or if it’s a combination of the two.

Pippa Woolven
But I suppose the advice medically and lifestyle-wise is fairly similar. You know, eat the right amount of the right foods, and lift some weights and try to think more holistically about your health and well being so I’m looking forward to more research to help us really establish what’s going on. But for now, I think we’re still a little far behind.

Steph Gaudreau
Yeah, absolutely. I think I agree with that as well we’re kind of figuring out these conversations in real-time in a lot of ways, and that makes it tricky and a little bit messy. Sometimes we help tease these things apart.

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, and I think it’s the same with this term over-training syndrome, which was certainly banded about more when I was looking into this Red S you know, problem in 2014 than it perhaps is now, because we recognize, through all this awesome research that could actually be due to low energy availability or low carbohydrate availability specifically. So it’s brilliant that we’re slowly catching on to the fact this could be actually red s that’s packaged up as overtraining syndrome. But either way, it helps to have some research to help others understand it.

Steph Gaudreau
Yeah, absolutely. I’m so glad that you mentioned the low carbohydrate availability piece, and I know that that was a part of the newer update that came out as well, and really just sort of breaking this topic open. And I think it’s exciting on one hand, that we have all of this awareness. We have a lot of research being done on this topic. We have this really amazing push to, how do we standardize even what is low energy availability? How do we measure that in certain people and populations? And it also kind of shines a spotlight on how prevalent this problem really is especially in athletic folks.

Steph Gaudreau
I know that you mentioned just a few minutes ago about, you know, we used to think this is just an elite athlete problem, you know, you might have maybe even considered yourself amongst right at a very prestigious running school, like a very, you know, elite level collegiate athlete when it comes to the more recreational crowd, you said that there’s sometimes like this growing awareness, and it sort of has pros and cons. I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit more to that, because my population, to people tend to not be the highest echelon of, you know, either strength athletes or endurance athletes, but they are people who are out there.

Steph Gaudreau
They’re devoting a significant amount of time to their training. They really love it. Some compete, some don’t. And so it can be hard, I think, for people to self-identify as this could be me. So do you have thoughts on or what are your thoughts on the recreational crowd and how red s is affecting that subset of the population?

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, totally. I think that’s something we should, for sure focus some research on. Actually, that’s the population that I perhaps fear the most, because they don’t have access to sports psychologists, sports nutritionists, necessarily, through whatever institution or organization they’re part of because they’re just doing this for the pure enjoyment of the sport, and they’re probably combining it with a busy day job, potentially parenthood or any other sort of big life stress.

Pippa Woolven
You know, everybody has lots going on, and unless you’re a professional athlete, you’re not focusing solely on. Covering in your downtime because you’re filling it with work or social activities or any other kind of role, and I think that the energy balance at that point is even harder to maintain. So I think we should very much be focusing some awareness and prevention there, and not just talking about this as a competitive or elite-level athlete problem.

Steph Gaudreau
Yeah, 100% one of the things that comes up a lot when I talk to people about this is they say, but I’m not an athlete, because, in their mind, an athlete means there’s some standard, there’s some definition, there’s some level of performance that they have to display, or they think Michael Phelps or Serena Williams, those are, those are athletes, but I’m not an athlete. What are your thoughts on that? You know, who is an athlete who qualifies for this in terms of something to keep on their radar?

Pippa Woolven
Well, I love Stacey Sims, and I’m sure you’ll have looked into her work, but her quote if you exercise on purpose, you are an athlete, I think, just hits the mark because you do not have to be competing. You don’t even have to be doing anything structured. You just have to be moving your body, expending energy to therefore need to replenish that energy with your nutrition. It is a shame that perhaps these conditions are marketed as athletic population problems, and perhaps that was due to its precursor being the female athlete triad.

Pippa Woolven
So we do have some work to do on awareness in that area, but that’s part of what we aim to achieve, and it’s hard because as an organization, you sort of have to hone in on a target audience if you want to reach people. But I would hate to alienate the other organ, the other members of the population, who can very much suffer from this condition too.

Steph Gaudreau
Yeah, absolutely, it’s a tough conversation to have and kind of get in there, what do you run into? And this is kind of a personal question because this is something that I hear a lot, which is, well, we have so many people that are potentially consuming more calories than they need for their activity level, so how do we make sense of all of this, when the world may have a subset of people who could potentially even be athletically active, they’re recreationally active. How do we make sense of, you know, are you?

Steph Gaudreau
Are you consuming enough nutritional energy? Are you not? Because I hear this a lot, which is, you know, not everybody like they have so many people who are potentially overeating. But you know, how do you address that question? What would you say?

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, it’s so difficult, because we know from the research that your body shape or size does not determine whether you’re eating enough, because quite often, if you’re not eating enough, your body will go into this self-preservation mode and either maintain or even increase your body weight depending on what you’re feeding it. So it’s a very dangerous assumption to make that if someone is not underweight or what you would deem as a healthy BMI, they are the only people suffering from low energy availability.

Pippa Woolven
But of course, you know, yes, there are people who are overeating and not exercising enough, and we all just need to work harder to find the balance. But I think that the campaigning and the marketing towards the obesity crisis has just gone a bit too far in not recognizing the other scale of the problem and that side of the spectrum. So it is difficult. I think we just need to work on this balance. Word again, it all comes back to balance.

Steph Gaudreau
Yeah, for sure, having just even having the discussion about how it’s nuanced an individual right, just because, you know, somebody who may not have a good handle on their nutrition, for example, they maybe don’t have the resources, and so they’re not sure maybe they are over-consuming calories. But that doesn’t mean that that’s you and everybody kind of has to assess that for themselves or get assistance in assessing that. And I think that that’s, you know if we just try to put people into one bucket. We’re like, well, everybody at this age is, you know, I say this age, I mean in their 40s and 50s. But everybody at this age, you know, is struggling with, for example, eating too much, or maybe they’re too sedentary. And that’s just, we can’t make that determination.

Pippa Woolven
No, no, I watched a really interesting Allie Ostrander video. I’m not sure if you follow her. She’s an elite runner in the States, and she was talking to her coach, David Roche, about whether you can you eat too much as a competitive endurance athlete. And I know not everyone listening will be competitive, but they might well be training as if they are. And they were basically deciding that if you’re expending, you know, a huge amount of energy through your training, you can’t really over-consume certain food groups, at least, and so you should just be more focused on eating enough than being afraid of this overconsumption. And I think David shared a quote that was like, eat too much sometimes, eat enough always, and eat too little, never, which I just thought was fantastic for any active athlete to hear.

Steph Gaudreau
Yeah, you want earlier you mentioned the term athletic esthetic, and I’m wondering if you can share with the listeners what you mean by that, and maybe potentially, how it influenced either you or you see with the people that you come across through the red s project, how that athletic esthetic has played a role in things like low energy availability and red S

Pippa Woolven
Yeah. So I guess the term essentially describes what we all assume an athlete to look like externally. So I suppose when you are asked to imagine an endurance athlete, we will, I think, have a picture in our mind of someone who’s lean and tall, and that’s what we’ve been brought up viewing, at least especially at the elite levels. And so a lot of comments and a lot of media focuses on that particular appearance, which we know through research and anecdotally that that’s not what it requires to be successful or healthy, necessarily, but it’s, you know, some people are able to maintain low body mass and low-fat mass and compete or perform in sport.

Pippa Woolven
But that’s not the only way you need to look to feel good and perform well. So I think it’s a shame that we haven’t focused on a more diverse range of body types throughout history, especially when it comes to female athletes who are different to male athletes by nature. And I’m seeing more and more people talking about it, and fantastic people on Instagram, including you, you know, talking about the fact that it’s not always esthetically advantageous to pursue this low body mass. So it’s a conversation that needs to be raised and continually talked about. I think,

Steph Gaudreau
when you were competing in Florida, did you ever have, was there ever conversation from coaching staff or other athletes, other runners on your team, even, where there was a drive to get you all to be smaller or leaner or lighter or to Just be smaller for the sake of better performance?

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, for sure, there always was this focus on, I guess lighter is faster. You know, it wasn’t potentially explicitly spelled out, but we all knew that that was the goal. And with this focus on clean eating and the fact that the coach pretty much always bought a size small for the team, at least the A team, is quite implied. And it’s such a shame because, you know, that does plant a seed, especially for influential young athletes who are still going through puberty and learning how to work with their bodies.

Pippa Woolven
And it’s such a shame because I look back and I think if only I had maintained this outlook I had when I was 16 when I ate what I wanted and ran loads, and I never really gave it much thought. If only I had maintained that kind of focus on things, I probably would have avoided this really debilitating condition, and who knows where I would have ended up performance-wise.

Steph Gaudreau
Were there any adjustments that you made to your training to try to when you were saying, you know, your performances started to suffer? How? How, if at all, did you try to shift your training to compensate for that?

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, well, sadly, because I didn’t know enough, and I wasn’t perhaps, in the best place to hear advice, had it been given to me about resting more, I actually did the opposite. So I thought, Okay, well, you know, I must just be unfit. There’s no reason why I was starting to perform poorly, or, you know, experiencing a plateau in my performance. So I must just need to train harder and because on the outside, you know, I I looked to be what I thought was an elite athlete’s physique.

Pippa Woolven
I didn’t realize that I had lost weight, which doesn’t happen for everybody with an energy deficit. Yeah, but I and no one mentioned it, you know, everyone said I looked great, and I was in shape, and I never had anybody say, look, you’re looking unhealthy. You’re performing poorly. You’ve got low energy, which is crazy, because looking back, it was so obvious, but no one could help me put those pieces of the puzzle together. So I ended up just training more.

Steph Gaudreau
Yeah, and I hear that a lot as well from the populations I tend to work with, which is, if you’re not performing well, then it just must be that you’re not training enough. It’s like the first thing that we go to, instead of looking broader and more holistically at what the person is actually doing, what their inputs are, and that sort of thing. So hopefully, through a lot of the work that you all are doing, we’ll start to eventually change that perception.

Steph Gaudreau
And it’s kind of that natural thing is, which is, I’m just not doing enough myself, being in the cycling world, the mountain biking world, you know, we’re mountain bikers at that time. You know, we’re a little bit different from road racers and whatnot. But the ideal was still, you know, thin, small, very slight of build, just be as little as possible. And that led me down a lot of the decisions and the habits and routines that I was doing as well, which was just, I just need to eat less, I just need to be smaller and ride more.

Steph Gaudreau
I need to train more. And so, like you were saying earlier, is kind of that perfect storm of under-fueling over training. And you know, there were definitely a couple of big periods in my life where that had some pretty significant impacts. I did have a huge period of burnout after many years of racing mountain bikes, and triathlons, and I was just done, and then kind of got into weight training, but there was still that food piece of the puzzle for me that wasn’t adequate enough. And so I think you know, again, this was probably about 2012 at the time, where I really was seeking out help and guidance on this.

Steph Gaudreau
And it was just kind of mind-blowing to me, much like you were saying with your own story, that the answer wasn’t just lying in the training that, oh, wow, okay, we actually have to think about eating appropriately for the amount of activity that we’re doing, and we’ll be better off for it.

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, and I guess one of the challenges we face is that in society in general, we are praised, typically, for the behaviors and actions that lead to low energy availability. So, you know, eating loads of vegetables and cutting back on carbs and, you know, avoiding fats and all of these, all of these things that you know, we’ve been sold by diet culture that is so inappropriate for any exercising person. And I guess the other challenge we’re facing is that, at least initially, somebody who is focusing more on their training and their diet might experience some performance enhancement effect.

Pippa Woolven
You might start to feel fitter, and healthier, and better in your skin. And then, you know, you kind of drop off this U-shaped curve into the abyss of low energy availability. And because no one was talking about it when we were experiencing it, you don’t know that. And as you say, you just keep going because there’s no information out there to tell you otherwise, absolutely,

Steph Gaudreau
I know one of the fears that a lot of people have when they start restoring their energy intake to appropriate levels is that you know, if there are, for example, in a sport where there are weight classes, that their weight class could change, that their body is going to change. And obviously there are a lot of supports for dealing with this. And I think, you know, we’ve talked a lot about on this podcast over the years, mental health support and making sure that if body image is really, if there’s, like, a severe issue or just something you want to talk through with somebody, like, it’s okay to get help for that. But I’m wondering, from your perspective, do you all run into that fear from folks, which is okay? Well, I know that I might perform better, but I’m afraid of what’s going to happen to my body, and sort of, what support or advice do you have for people there?

Pippa Woolven
Definitely, I think there’s a small percentage of the population who are solely performance-focused, and that’s perhaps your elite competitive athlete, who are less reluctant to make changes because they know in the long run it’s going to benefit their performance and they thought they’re able to suck up the potential changes to their body that might not be desirable to them in the short term, but for the most part, people are so afraid of altering their body composition. You know, we’ve all been led to believe that thinner is better.

Pippa Woolven
Thinner is faster, and even when that isn’t working anymore. You know, people aren’t getting thinner, or they’re maybe even gaining weight. We’re still so afraid of behavior change, because we’ve maintained these behaviors for so long, and they’ve become habitual, and it’s scary to step out of your comfort zone sometimes. So I personally think this is where the benefits of mentoring come in because when you’re speaking to somebody who has been there and experienced what you’re experiencing, and then been able with support to make those changes, it’s much easier to take on what they’re saying and to relate to them and to ask them the right questions and get the right support, I think so that’s what we focus on, as well as, of course, medical, dietary and psychological support from specialists. But yeah, it’s incredibly common that you know you might have the diagnosis, you might know exactly what’s wrong and what you need to do, but that’s a very different ballgame to actually doing it.

Steph Gaudreau
Yes, for sure. Just a couple more questions so we can talk more about the red s project. You mentioned some of the things that you all are doing and providing, but I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit more to specifically, what is the mission. How do you work to accomplish that mission through the day-to-day and the things that you’re up to as an organization? Yeah. So

Pippa Woolven
it’s a very simple mission of awareness, prevention, and support. So we want to make sure that everyone who is active knows of the term Red S or RedS, and knows you know what the symptoms are, and how to avoid it, which feeds into the prevention arm of how can we get this education embedded within coaching practices or in the mass audience so that people who are just recreational following certain Instagram accounts know how to avoid low energy availability, which is where your work is so fantastic, and then support is signposting people towards tried and trusted dietitians or medical specialists or ex or psychological experts who are in the know about wellness and who can support someone who’s suffering from it without simply dismissing the fact that they’re missing their menstrual cycle, or that they have a low libido, or that their performance is suffering for seemingly no reason. So we, you know, as a team, try very hard to work on all of those three things, but ideally, we would be putting more time and energy into the prevention side of things, so that we don’t have to help dig people out of the hole that they find themselves in.

Steph Gaudreau
Yeah, 100% I love that you brought up coaches and coaching. I’m wondering what are some of the ways that you all advocate that coaches can help their athletes, whether this is sort of a competitive level thing or a more recreational coaching type of situation. What do you think makes a big difference in red s and getting that information out to athletes from the coaching side?

Pippa Woolven
Well, so I believe that it’s the coach’s responsibility to have a strong understanding of red s and what it might present itself as in an athlete. And that’s not necessarily just appearance. It’s, you know, the things the athlete might be saying, or how their training is going, or, you know, their mental well-being, and then knowing where to signpost the athlete without trying to solve all the problems themselves. You know, it’s not a coach’s responsibility to be providing nutritional advice, necessarily, or to be a psychologist.

Pippa Woolven
So I think every coach needs to be aware of what the problem is, know how to refer an athlete to support services, and also just be, importantly, strong role models themselves to, you know, say the right things, to avoid saying the wrong things, to practice this balance, to help athletes engage in flexibility and not so much rigidity and obsessive behaviors. So there’s lots of things the coach can do, but first and foremost, just an understanding of what this is and why it really matters. Yeah,

Steph Gaudreau
I would, I would say all of that is so important. And to your point, even the idea that the term Red S is still fairly new. And I mean, if we’re talking about basically a decade here at this point, I. I still run across lots of coaches. Whether they coach strength training, they work with athletes on more endurance-type sports, they’re working with people on their nutrition. And those people tend to be recreationally active, right? That’s kind of part of the the idea of of nutrition coaching is a lot of times also facilitating people’s lifestyle choices and getting them more physically active.

Steph Gaudreau
And so I think it should be part of all of the different types of certifying curricula here in the States, at least for things like personal training and even different organizations. I used to be in the USA weightlifting coach, so I was certified under them, and I can’t remember ever even running across any of that information in the training manuals. So it’s, it’s still such a big missing piece, and I’m so glad that you are doing this work, and it’s getting more international attention as well, because here in the States, it’s just, I feel like we have a, we have a really long way to go.

Pippa Woolven
Yeah and I suppose you know, it has been 10 years since this term came out, but even before that, this was always a problem, and it was just that we weren’t directing enough energy and focus to the fact that this has a huge impact on any active person’s life, and we need to just stop thinking so much about performance, and especially short term performance, because it really is impactful on not just your your physical health, but your mental health too.

Pippa Woolven
And it takes a long time to get over something like this, which is why prevention is so key. But yeah, I think you’re doing fantastic work, and we all are. But I think, I guess, we could look to the concussion crisis as an example of how change can be facilitated. And I’m not going to give up hope that we’re not all going to be talking about this, this problem in years to come, because it is possible.

Steph Gaudreau
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why I love bringing folks like yourself, Kyniska Advocacy, et cetera on the show, because even though you’re talking about similar things, it’s just one more touch point to get this information out to people to have that conversation. I know I get occasionally, emails and messages from parents who are also, you know, thinking about this and concerned about their kids, who are in sports and maybe even performing at a fairly high level.

Steph Gaudreau
So the more we can put it out there, I think the better. And it’s gonna it’s gonna happen. What’s gonna happen one person at a time, and as long as we’re doing that, and we’re reaching that one person who needs to hear this podcast or see that post on Instagram that’s that counter to something kind of icky that they’re seeing in their feed. That’s all, that’s all we can do, right is put it out there and give people the good quality information that that they really need, for sure.

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, and I, and I think it does fall down to a lot of high-performing athletes as well, to be positive role models and to be opening up the conversation, because they do hold a lot of influence, and they do have a huge following. And it’s been amazing to watch people talk about the term red s without having to really introduce it as a concept that you know, they might just post it in an Instagram caption and assume that their audience know what they’re talking about, which is really heartening for me, particularly because 10 years ago, no one would have had a clue what that stood for.

Steph Gaudreau
Absolutely, what’s what’s on the horizon for the red s project, any new initiatives? Or are you sort of on autopilot trying to maintain what you’ve put into place so far? What? What is the organization up to?

Pippa Woolven
Yeah, well, I mean, we’re always trying to move forward. It’s hard because we don’t have as much funding as would be ideal to get this really off the ground on a huge scale. But we’re constantly working on those three pillars. And one thing that I would love to see happening more is a, I guess, a kind of army of mentors who are available and based in different time zones and different locations, to speak to people who are suffering, to help with the support side of things.

Pippa Woolven
And then I would love to see the NCAA in particular, stepping up with some prevention practices. I have been helping to develop this awareness toolkit for coaches, and I’m really hoping that we can get that rolled out in the NCAA. But if anyone listening has any contacts that could be useful, or if you know of anyone who knows of anyone, it’s incredibly hard to get a foot in the door there, especially when you’re based in England. So yeah, we need all the help we can get, I guess.

Steph Gaudreau
All right, international audience is definitely what this podcast has. Somebody will know somebody, I’m sure. So this is how the magic happens, and this is why podcasting is so powerful. So I’m going to put it out there too. I mean, we’ll even try to tag them up in the in the in the caption of this when it goes out on social media. But, yeah, absolutely, keep up the great work that you’re doing. I’m, you know, I’m so glad that you’ve decided to take up this torch.

Steph Gaudreau
And any coaches out there, you know, I always say, if anybody wants to talk to me about it, you know, look at the other podcasts that we have, we’ve had on this topic. Dive into your website. It’s great as well, Kyniska Advocacy is another great one. Just get informed and and have these conversations with the people around you too. That’s, I think, how this is going to spread, and awareness will continue to grow. So well done, and I really appreciate having you on the show.

Pippa Woolven
Thank you, yeah, and thank you for all the awesome work you do. I think it’s so important that you have such a huge following and you’re spreading all the right messages and helping to counteract the potentially less helpful messages we find online. So thank you, and it’s a pleasure to be part of your parade.

Steph Gaudreau
Thanks for being here. I appreciate it.

Pippa Woolven
All right, speak soon.

Steph Gaudreau
All right, that’s a wrap on this podcast episode with Project Red S founder, Pippa Woolven. If you found this episode to be useful, insightful, or helpful in any way, please consider one of the following. Please share it out with somebody who you know could hear this message, whether that’s on your own Instagram stories or you just send the link to somebody you know who needs this information. You can also send them the link to the Project Red S website as well.

Steph Gaudreau
Secondly, please subscribe to the show, whether that’s on your favorite podcast streaming platform or YouTube. Your vote of confidence by subscribing sends a powerful signal that others may also like this content. And of course, if you’re looking for performance, and nutrition guidance in the context of training for your life over 40, then you can check out more about Strength, Nutrition Unlocked over at StephGaudreau.com and apply. Thank you so much for joining us on this very, very important episode, and until next time, stay well-fueled and strong.

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Steph Gaudreau

Hi, I'm Steph Gaudreau (CISSN, NASM-CPT)!

Nutrition and fitness coach for women, Lord of the Rings nerd, and depending on who you ask, crazy cat lady. My mission is to help you fuel for more: bigger muscles, strength, energy, and possibilities. We’ll do it with my signature blend of science, strategy…and a little bit of sass.

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