Body Image in the Winter Months
Body image among athletes is a broad topic and something that has been in the news extensively lately with Lauren Fleshman’s inspiring discussion of her mistreatment by Nike Coaches. One topic under-discussed in this field, and the central point of this brief blog post, is the body image issues faced by athletes at the start of Winter, when body fat naturally rises.
As red leaves slowly fall from silvery trees, the minds of most people shift to Thanksgiving and the following holidays. Many runners and cyclists shift into off-season mode, trading in intervals and sprints for long slogs on the stationary bike or slow endurance mileage. Climbers, on the other hand, make their way outside, leaving behind the plastic of gym season for crisp rock and headlamp-filled sessions of fun. Through all this, one other aspect of training changes: body fat. Blamed on filling holiday treats and lack of intense training, most athletes tend to gain weight as the air gets crisp. In reality, however, this weight gain is a natural, healthy response to the colder Winter months.
In the ancient and medieval past, winter meant less food. Unlike the warm months, when growth is plentiful, the barren land lead to hunger and avoidance of movement. As with other animals, our body’s self preservation instinct kicks in and protects itself by storing more fat. Medically, your body increases its insulin resistance as winter nears, leading to increased fat storage and lowered metabolism (hibernation mode). This natural process can be difficult for athletes who struggle with body image issues and pride themselves on toned abs and a sleek build. Many athletes blame themselves and respond to “winter-mode” with low-calorie diets, huge increases in cardio, or other extreme measures.
In light of this, it’s important to focus on the fact that going on a starvation diet isn’t going to help you or your sport. Without the nutrition you need, you won’t be able to climb the same grades, run the same times, or generally have the same energy in life. Further, you’ll put yourself at a greater likelihood of sickness and burnout. Forcing your body to function on a minimal calorie load will simply hold you back from the goals you want to achieve.
Instead, focus on eating healthy and training hard. Your body, and training goals, will thank you for it. Consider reaching out to a professional therapist to discuss body image issues and remember that your body will naturally transition back into “summer-form” as the weather warms again. Enjoy the holidays, spend time with friends, and I’ll see you at the crag!
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