Magdalene student named Osprey of the Year
The Ospreys is a society by and for the University of Cambridge’s sportswomen aimed at raising the profile of women’s sport. Niamh was recently interviewed by the Cambridge sports website the Blue Bird, the interview can be seen below.
Osprey of the Year: “There’s a Presumption That Runners Are Healthy, When Often They’re Not”
Niamh Bridson Hubbard has had an astonishing season as a long-distance runner and is an exceptionally worthy winner of Osprey of the Year. The cross country team won their Varsity and also earned a historic bronze medal at BUCS. With an individual win at Varsity as well as an individual 10th place at BUCS, Niamh certainly played a key role in this success, not only as captain, but also as a star individual athlete. Beyond University, Niamh came an impressive 5th at the U23 European trials and was selected as first reserve for the Senior England European Championship team.
However, what is clear from talking to her about her achievements is that she wants to use her platform to discuss wider issues facing young female runners, in particularly their vulnerability to falling victim to a culture of intense pressure and disordered eating within the sport.
“I’m really keen to talk about something more interesting than just me running and would like to put more of a focus on the importance of looking after your mental and physical health and getting enough rest. I think runners are always assumed to be ‘healthy’ people and from my experience, that isn’t often the case.”
“In lockdown too there’s been a massive increase in running, partly because it’s the only form of exercise readily available to a lot of people, but also because it generates a great endorphin boost.”
“The thing I see the most is this general presumption that runners are really healthy; you definitely see it at an elite level in particular, even though this isn’t always the case. There’s also this really harmful culture that you should always be pushing yourself harder and running faster all of the time. I don’t think it always puts people in the best place. It’s a very dangerous line when you’re in a sporting culture where everyone is so driven and set on being the best.”
“This culture of intense dieting in young female runners garnered significant media attention in autumn last year, when Mary Cain, a young American star track athlete training at the same camp as Mo Farah, published a testimony about the emotional and physical abuse she faced at the hands of head coach, Alberto Salazar, and his team. At 17, Mary Cain was already a record-breaking phenomenon: the fastest girl in a generation, and the youngest American track and field athlete to make a World Championships team . In 2013, she was signed by the best track team in the world, Nike’s Oregon Project, run by star coach Salazar.But, instead of making the Olympics like she was predicted to do, her world collapsed. She was told that in order to be faster, she needed to be thinner. Not only was this mentally unhealthy, but it was scientifically wrong.
A big part of this problem is that women and girls are being forced to meet athletic standards that are based on how men and boys develop. If you try to make a girl fit a boy’s development timeline, her body is at risk of breaking down. That is what happened to Cain. At the Nike Oregon Project, she described being pushed to take birth control pills and diuretics to lose weight. She endured regular public weigh-ins and verbal abuse from some of her teammates. Cain’s success on the track came at a huge price: she didn’t have her period for three years, which weakened her bone health so much that she endured five stress fractures in five different bones. After months of dieting and frustration, Cain found herself choosing between training with the best team in the world or potentially developing osteoporosis or even infertility. She went from being a once-in-a-generation Olympic hopeful to having suicidal thoughts.
Following Cain’s testimony, Nike announced it would start an investigation into the allegations. On December 9th 2019, hundreds of Nike employees protested against the company’s backing of Alberto Salazar and treatment described by Cain and other Nike-sponsored female athletes. On January 21st 2020, the United States Centre for SafeSport placed Salazar on its temporarily banned list, a disciplinary action that could result in a lifetime ban.
In September this year, the Ostrava Golden Spike Meet attracted controversy after journalist Chris Chavez pointed out that the commentating on the women’s 1500m race had been poor: the commentary concentrated on the physique of the pacers rather than about the race itself. Zdeňka Seidlová is a Czech sprinter who specialises in the 400m, but was a pacer for the women’s 1,500m. She came to the front of the field to take her spot and it was pointed out by the announcer that she was wearing pink, and she was obviously not a member of the race because of her build. “You can actually tell, just by looking at the way that they’re built, that they’re [laughs], the pacemakers. Much more muscle mass on our two pacemakers.” This wasn’t the first time that a runner’s body and physical appearance has been talked about ahead of their performance.
“It’s something that I think about a lot.” Niamh reflects. “Shortly after the Mary Cain story came out and she gave her testimony of the experiences that she had, there was a definitely a pushback within the sport. My facebook timeline became flooded with people re-sharing the video. I think Mary Cain’s experiences hit home for a lot of people. The ‘lighter = faster’ mentality is something that’s shaped a lot of people’s experiences in the sport and I’m really glad there is starting to be a push back against it.”
Niamh recalls how last year a sports doctor came to the University club to talk about a serious condition called Relative Energy Deficient in Sports (RED-S) Syndrome, something that was previously referred to and dismissed as the Female Athlete Triad. RED-S is triggered by consuming too few calories for the level of activity an athlete does. By not meeting the energy demands of the activity, the athlete will be performing on less-than optimal energy availability. Decreased energy affects hormonal pathways in the body. For women, the syndrome usually manifests as disordered eating, loss of menstrual periods and decreased bone mineral density which can lead to fractures and breakages. This is what happened to Mary Cain, as well as to thousands of other female athletes within the sport.
“This talk we were given at the club really highlighted to me that if you’re going on for a long time where you’re not fuelling your body enough and training really hard, it can have severe effects on your long-term health, particularly your bone health and your fertility.”
“One of the reasons I was keen to do this interview was to try and set a positive example. We need to redefine what healthy means within women’s running. I think it’s important to recognise that health isn’t the same as diet culture or compulsive exercise. Wanting to run fast is not a good reason to compromise your long term health.”
“It’s such a hard issue to tackle because you’re pushing back against both a societal and sporting culture of thinness as an ideal. Also, I think the problem can be well hidden behind an assumption of ‘well if they can run really fast, then of course they’re healthy’ but I’ve just seen time and time again that this isn’t the case.”
“The year I was cross country captain, I found myself writing emails every week telling people to do less running and more sitting down. I found it hard to articulate that getting good rest and fuelling adequately was just as important as the training. And if you haven’t had a period in the past couple of months, that isn’t something that you can just palm off. It means you’ve gone into the red and are putting your health at risk – you should go to the GP, just like you would with any other health problem.”
“Periods are a great indicator of whether or not you’re getting the balance between training and fuelling right, however there’s still significant taboo around talking about them, which makes it harder for people to bring up if they’re having a problem. Where I can (and is appropriate), I try and have these conversations. I want to normalise it to a point where asking if someone’s periods are regular is no different to asking whether they’re getting enough sleep.”
Informally amongst some of the older members of the club, we’ve been normalise the dialogue not only around periods but also around how you’re feeling within yourself. Once you get into that habit of speaking about it, whether it be to your teammates or your coach, you realise that it’s not something to be embarrassed about, and the social stigma is irrelevant. By normalising it and having those conversations, you can educate people about the risks of under-fuelling/ overtraining and help stop problems before they start.”
“Although men are subject to the same lighter = faster discourse, the impact in terms of injury rates seem to be particularly acute amongst female athletes. I think if you said to the men’s team ‘you know if you ate more, you’d run faster’ they’d all take it on board and gladly do as you say. Whereas if you said that to the women’s team, it would be questioned or would make them feel uncomfortable or afraid they would get bigger or slower. You’ve got a systemic problem in the sport when athletes are more concerned about conforming to what they think they should look like in order to perform well, rather than following medical advice as to what is best.”
On reflection, it’s easy for us all to think about this issue and how it has affected us. I’m sure I won’t be alone in saying as a young girl and avid runner growing up, that I wanted to look like Jessica Ennis. I wanted to emulate her; her success, her physique, her washboard abs. In the same, way I’m sure many young boys wanted to emulate Usain Bolt. Whilst both of these people are extraordinary athletes with powerful images, what differs between the two is how they are attempted to be emulated. To get abs like Jess Ennis, myself and many other young women would be forgiven for thinking that this meant running more and eating less. Whereas the boys wanting to look like Bolt would hit the gym and fill themselves with whatever calories their bodies needed. This highlights how while the dedication, fuel and nutrition needed for male and female athletes is exactly the same, the ways in which many attempt to replicate such success, often fuelled by a toxic culture of body shaming and dieting, is vastly different.
Niamh agrees passionately. “That pressure and expectation surrounding the aesthetics of being a runner definitely affected me mentally. At the start of a race, I’d look around me and feel like I didn’t look like I belonged there. I wasn’t running any differently; I was just as quick. The very nature of the sport encourages a certain introspectiveness and combined with a toxic culture you see many young girls eating ‘healthier’ (aka, less) not so that they can run faster, but so that they can look a certain way.
“I’ve definitely found that my best performances have come when I’ve been fuelling effectively for my training load. We tend to run a big session on a Tuesday afternoon and once I got in from that, I’d drink a tonne of chocolate milk and normally make something calorie-dense like burgers and chips for dinner. When you’re doing a significant training load, that is what healthy can look like. You need to eat and re-fuel so your muscles can recover and repair, and you can go out for a run the next day and be fine.”
“It’s about having running complementing the rest of your life, not controlling it. Granted, there’s nothing normal about being an Olympic runner, but you can still have a balanced approach to a routine that’s extreme.”
“Ideally what I’d want would be a ‘big idea’/logical shift towards a more balanced healthy approach within the sport. It shouldn’t just be a race to the bottom, it should be something that improves your mental and physical health.”
“There is definitely some stuff to be done at the top level. There’s more info out there about RED-S and people such as Mary Cain have come out and shared stories, prompting the discontinuing of some running programmes and the firing of coaches such as Salazar, and that’s definitely been valuable. I think there needs to be a lot more support at a junior level for coaches to really have the emotional and conversational tools to deal with these issues. The other thing I’ve been thinking about is how having high profile athletes such as Mary Cain and others in the British running scene coming out and talking about their experiences can often make it seem like individualised issues curated in a ‘perfect storm’ of a couple of bad coaches and an athlete who had pre-existing mental health problems. It sensationalises it a bit when actually it’s so systemic.
“I could give you way too many examples of people I know who have had to stop competing because of overtraining and under-fuelling for too long. A photo popped up on my Facebook timeline of a national junior training camp from the year before I started university, and the scary thing is that very few of those girls are now running due to health complications.”
“The Hare and Hounds club at Cambridge is such a fantastic set up. It has been one of the most amazing aspects of my time at Cambridge. This year in the women’s side we had a great year and won our first BUCS medal in 15 years, which was incredibly impressive, especially when you take into account how a lot of the other unis who do way better than us have way more funding. I really don’t have a bad word to say about it at Cambridge. I think over the last few years there’s been a real push to try and better support people who are struggling and improve the culture within the club, there’s a lot of fantastic things there and a lot of people who really care and look out for each other.”
Aside from her achievements as an athlete this year at Cambridge, I think what makes Niamh stand out most as a role model is her passion and commitment to talking about those issues that are often taboo. By using her influence as a senior figure in the club she encouraged others to speak out about their concerns regarding the sport as well as to be more in tune with their bodies and put their own physical and mental health first. For me, this makes her even more deserving of the Osprey of the Year award than any of her accomplishments on the track.
Interviews by Charlotte Cutter, Blue Bird Head of University Reporting
The College extends a huge congratulations to Niamh.
This article first appeared on the Blue Bird website and has been shared with kind permission from the Blue Bird under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence.