Dream days. Those races where everything seems to magically come together—you feel good, you’re focused on the present, and you get out there and absolutely crush it. Yeah, pretty much the days that are a reminder of why you love to race!
When I was racing in the juvenile category (around 15-16 years old) I thought that dream days were based entirely on luck; I would go out there and seemingly do the same thing each race, and sometimes the stars aligned and sometimes they did not. As you can imagine, consistency wasn’t really a word in my racing vocabulary. . . but it was a word I so desperately wanted to add. I just didn’t know how to get there. I spent the next couple years plugging away, training hard, and putting in the work but still felt like I was missing something.
Another year of inconsistent racing occurred with a number of pretty crappy races which finally forced me to realize that the thing I’d been missing was ownership of my race experience. In race situations where things weren’t perfect (maybe the race course didn’t play to my “strengths” or my wax wasn’t bullet proof) I would decide that a dream day couldn’t occur and would count myself out; I had made dream days to be something out of my control and was waiting for them to happen instead of going out there and creating them. Looking back, I think this lack of ownership was partially a form of self-protection— if I didn’t have control over the perfect day then the disappointment of a bad race wouldn’t hurt quite as much. I’m not saying that crappy days don’t happen, or that some races can’t magically just come together, but rather that to race consistently one needs to take those days that may first be labelled a write off, embrace what one has control over and fight through. Because you never really know what may happen until you actually go out and try.
Before Christmas I competed at U23 trials in Canmore. The first race was a Classic sprint and although I’ve always loved sprinting, I’ve also always been better at skate sprints. As well, with trials being over final exams I had an exam the day before and thus spent the days leading up to the race studying hard on top of all the race prep activity. Needless to say, I felt pretty mentally and physically exhausted during the sprint qualifier which was not at all how I was hoping to feel at one of the most important races of the year. Sitting on a chair in our wax room between the quali and the heats I realized I was at a bit of a junction point—I could either take my qualifier time as discouragement and spend the rest of the day just racing to survive OR I could take my qualifier time as something I could improve upon and buckle up for the ride. I chose option #2. The rest of the day was a battle: it wasn’t pretty. It was very messy, but I took what I had control over and pushed through. Throughout the day I just kept reminding myself that the race, in so far as how hard I pushed, was in my control. I raced my quarterfinal 12sec faster than my qualifier and ended the day as 3rd U23. No. It wasn’t a dream day, but it was most definitely a day I could be proud of. And, with another 3rd in the skate 10km, and a 5th in the classic mass start it was one of the most consistent trials I have ever raced.
So, this year, don’t wait for your dream day to happen, go out there and make your own!
This summer has been a bit of a crazy one for me, in particular the past six weeks. From big volume weeks of training, to work, to a super condensed chemistry class, it seemed I was rushing from one thing to the next but constantly falling short. In a sense my summer was a bit of a rollercoaster. . but a broken one that was only going downhill. Each day seemed to push me to the edge of my psychological and/or physiological limit.
The interesting thing about being on the edge of my limit is that many things I’d worked on and fixed started falling apart causing the return of insecurities and problems. The resurfacing of past issues made me feel like I had taken a step back in the psychological side of skiing and life. Constantly comparing myself to others, lacking confidence in my own plan, struggling to find the motivation to dig that extra bit deeper in hard intensities, these were issues that 16 to 20 year old Zoë had dealt with and overcome. . . why was I having to go back over it all again, why was I taking that “step back”?
It really sucks to feel like you’re moving backwards but I think sometimes you need to take a step back; it not only lets you see the big picture, but also gives you the chance to look forward and decide if you want to make a change in the direction you’re heading: sometimes you need to take a step back to be able to continue moving forward. And yes, if you’d told me that a few weeks ago, I probably would’ve rolled my eyes or pushed the thought aside– looking inside oneself and seeing areas one wants to improve is for sure the first step, but it takes guts to look long enough to not only acknowledge and accept those things but to also start working on ways to be able to deal with them.
The resurfacing of past issues may initially seem quite negative. But being forced to re-evaluate what one’s doing, taking some time to look inside oneself, and continuing to grow as person? Those all sound pretty good!!
In particular. . .
Constant Comparison: I think it’s pretty natural in sport to compare oneself to others (that’s competition!). However, you get to decide what you take away from it. Are you going to get discouraged, get complacent, or get motivated and inspired to improve?
Confidence in your plan/yourself: It’s important to question and revaluate one’s training throughout the year to make sure you’re on the right track. But, some of that evaluation can only be done at the end of the season. So instead of questioning, now’s the time when you’ve got to embrace the plan and get confident! The mind is a powerful thing; if you believe you can ski fast it’s going to be a lot easier to convince your body of that fact on the race course! (awesome blog post about dealing with negativity)
Finding the next gear: with the summer volume over, fall is the time to work on those top end gears! It’s the time of the year to reconnect with old strategies and discover new ways to move one’s chair a little further back in the pain cave.
Yes, I took a bit of a step back this summer but I’m really looking forward to the direction I’ll be heading in this fall!
In November I hit a wall with improvement and my mental state plummeted. I was getting back into running but it hurt my hip and I couldn’t keep packing on more running if it was painful and the same was said for skate rollerskiing which was scary because it was November and I was only up to 15 minutes of skate rollerskiing at a time. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to skate ski race because the first races were in December.
While writing this blog I was going through my emails and found one I sent to my Coach on November 12th 2016. Poor Coach Kieran got the bulk of hearing about how unhappy I was but I just couldn’t keep pretending that I was great when I wasn’t. Sometimes just telling one person can make you feel better. Here’s the email…
“Lately I have been disappointed because I really want to go to all my practices, I want to do intensity, I want to skate ski, I want to run. I go to practice and see everyone else doing everything and I want to do everything too but I still can’t do everything and I know I shouldn’t because I don’t want to make anything worse but it just feels like it’s taking too long and I am not improving as fast as I use to and that worries me because what if I am not ready in time? And all of that disappointment piles up and one of these days I am going to explode in to a hundred pieces and I won’t be able to do anything about it”
I was about to explode but thankfully it snowed and, by the time December rolled around, my minutes in skate skiing increased. Although it hurt my hip to skate there was nothing I could do about it and my Physio said it shouldn’t cause too much damage so I pressed onwards. Running wasn’t improving though I could run for more than 5 minutes without my hip really hurting. Because we had snow I put running to the back of my mind and took a break from it because it wasn’t improving and I had ski racing to focus on! I was out just trying not to get my butt kicked from lack of training.
I finished up the ski season at the end of March happy that I was able to do all the races considering what had happened the year before. I was hopeful that, since I took a break from running, maybe I could start fresh and get back into it but deep down I knew my hip was still a problem.
I started running at the beginning of April and soon realised 2 things: that I could not go more then 20 minutes without my hip bothering me too much and that my shins started to hurt me too. Back to Physio Dave I went. Up to this point I assumed my hip hurting had to do with the screw at the top of my femur. Part of me wanted that to be true so that if I got it out then I wouldn’t have problems anymore. The other part of me hoped that the screw wasn’t the cause so that I wouldn’t have to go through another recovery.
Dave checked it out and confirmed that the probability of the screw being a problem was high and getting it out would be in my best interest. I left the Physio feeling disappointed because although he said taking the screws out could maybe make a difference it was still not a given and it meant I had to go through another recovery. It took time to book an appointment to get the screws out and the recovery would take time too. How much more training was I going to miss? I had an appointment with my surgeon, took a few x-rays, and decided to go ahead with taking the screws out. My break had healed a tremendous amount by now so it was safe to do so.
I thought it would take a while to book an appointment to get the surgery done but I got in earlier than I thought and got the screws out on May 2 2017. I was off pain meds 2 days later because all they did was make me sick. My Physio said I wouldn’t be able to start running for around 3-4 weeks after surgery which was something I would have to deal with again.
A week later I was back to rehabilitation. I had holes in my femur now so falling would be very bad so I spent lots of time on the bike trainer.
I made it to 4 weeks and I was able to get back to rollerskiing and biking outside. 4 weeks also meant back to run/walk intervals! The good news was that my hip didn’t hurt! The bad news was that my shin problem had manifested into something worse.
Over the next month I kept going in circles; when one injury went away another one would appear and would set me back from progressing in running. Even with the set backs I kept pushing forward slowly but surely.
Finally after 15 months (October 2017) I was able to run for 1 hour and 30 minutes. It wasn’t as rewarding as I had hoped because I was having problems with my patella tracking incorrectly at the time but it was running none the less.
This year (April 2018) I chose to start the spring with run/walk intervals in order to minimize injury. It’s been a long road back to where I was in running two years ago and I am still slower than my 16 year old self but I am running again. I did the 3000m critical speed track workout in the spring and as far as I know my femurs are still intact. I have been able to do all my ski practices no matter what mode of exercise they involve (rollerskiing, running -intensity, volume etc..). 2 weeks ago Zoë and I ran and ski walked 20 kilometers and I managed it with minimal leg problems.
Although breaking my femur was a pretty bad experience, one that I don’t want to redo, I don’t regret it happening because sometimes you have to have the worst happen to make you realise how much you love something. Crutching around for a month and a half on one leg made me realise how much I love xc skiing and competing. I guess what I am trying to say is, breaking a bone sucks and the recovery is almost worse but can also be an experience full of growth. Thanks to my Coach and Physio for all the support along the way.
I decided to share my story of recovery in hopes of helping someone who might be going through something similar.
June 7 2016 I broke my femur in half while doing a 3000m track workout. My run was going really well but on the second last lap, all of a sudden, I felt a sharp pain through the outside of my left leg. Next thing I knew, I was on the ground.
I had spiral fractured my femur; a spiral fracture happens when a long bone is torn in half by a twisting force or impact. How did I do that running? There were no signs of a stress fracture. I took a bone density test and they found nothing abnormal about my results. In truth the doctors at the hospital I was treated at (CHEO) have no real idea why my bone broke. Because the femur is the strongest bone in your body, motor vehicle collisions are the number one cause of femur fractures, so breaking it running was a great achievement of mine!
I had surgery on the 8th of June. It took 2 hours. They hammered a titanium rod through the length of my bone, securing it in place with 2 screws (one at the hip and one at the knee). I remember waking up from surgery thinking now would be a great time for someone to say “it was a dream” But that didn’t happen.
Because of the metal rod through my bone, I didn’t need a cast which was nice. Although, even without a cast, my leg was pretty much a dead weight. I couldn’t move it by itself without a lot of pain due to all the work they did at my hip. (They hammered the rod in through the top of my femur, in the process, separating the soft tissue to reach the bone).
Thursday I was told that I needed to start moving around. I crutched approximately 10m but was drugged up with various medications, my body was exhausted, and my leg was hurting; all of that made it difficult to move very far without getting nauseous, light headed, and then almost fainting.
On Friday I was told that as soon as I could crutch up steps, I could leave the hospital and go home. So by that evening at 6pm I was out of there! My Mom moved my bed to our dining room on the ground floor so that I didn’t have to go up and down stairs because, by that point, I couldn’t move more than 30m with out everything going white and fuzzy. As a result, crutching to the washroom was a crazy dash because if I stayed up too long I would start cold sweating and almost faint.
I spent the next week doing pretty much nothing other than watching a few TV shows and playing Xbox. . . .
By 2 weeks in I was able to move around more. We went to the hospital for a check up with an x-ray and saw no sign of healing so they told me that I had to start weight bearing in order to initiate bone growth. I saw the x-ray too. It was the first time I had seen my leg after surgery. Realising you have hardware inside your body is such a weird feeling; I left the hospital thinking I was going to be sick because although seeing the x-ray was cool, it was also very unsettling.
I got cleared to start physio a month after surgery which meant working to regain my full range of motion: I could only bend my leg about 120 degrees. In order to work on flexibility I would sit on a high bench so my feet couldn’t touch the ground and work on bending my knee. It was extremely uncomfortable; it felt like my femur was going to snap out of my skin. Similarly, to regain motion, I would try to pedal full circles on a trainer. My physio said that if I worked hard on my rehabilitation I would maybe be back to running in 6 months. I made it my goal to be back to running in 4 and spent at least 45 minutes stretching each day.
Because I had not used my leg for a while, and everything got mucked up from surgery, I lost the connection from my brain to the muscles in my leg. In order to rebuild the signal I was given a muscle stimulator. Muscle stimulators work by eliciting muscle contraction through electrical impulses: I would place electrode pads on my leg and focus on engaging my quad muscles while electrical currents from the muscle stimulator would contract my muscles. I could focus really really hard on engaging the muscles in my leg but without the muscle stimulator nothing actually happened.
Around this time I was cleared to start walking around in water. Over the next 2 weeks I also did arm strength, and worked my way up to actual swimming. By a month and a half I was able to hobble around without crutches! When thinking about injury you always assume that once off crutches you are somehow all better but that is totally not true! Shocker, I know…
Side story: A week after I stopped using crutches I found myself playing paintball during a music camp near Buffalo. I was limping as fast as I could through a forest thinking “Wow! This is how you make the experience more realistic!” not that that was what I was going for but still!
After 2 months I had regained my range of motion, and I was able to flex the now very small muscles in my leg. The first step to running was complete which meant moving on to step 2: strength. I had thought my 45 minutes of regaining range of motion was the main part of getting back on my feet but it was just the beginning. My physio told me that I needed to get stronger and not just in my leg, everywhere. So I started doing 30 minutes of physio strength a day, going to the gym 3 times a week and maintaining my cardio by swimming and biking on a trainer.
I was able to start biking outside (on safe roads) about 2 and a half months after my fracture. Because I had regained most of my range of motion I was able to pedal without a problem. Although I could “walk“ I couldn’t support myself with my bad leg for very long so when getting on and off my bike I would have to do it quickly or else my leg would give out on me.
By 3 months I was able to hike and I started classic rollerskiing again.
At 4 months I made it back to my first ski practice (Classic Rollerskiing).
4 and a half months after surgery I was able to skate rollerski for the first time. It really hurt my hip and because of that my Coach, Kieran, and my Physio decided that I should ease into it so I started with only 5 minutes of skating.
It was the end of October. The 5 month mark was coming up and I was starting to get restless. The first 3 months flew by. I was improving at a fast rate but now everything started slowing down and I was ready to be better: no more injury! But it doesn’t work like that. Sure, I was able to classic rollerski, bike, and go to the gym. I was even able to go to practices (although my workouts were modified and sometimes I was just there to be there and help out with coaching). My Coach would even come early to practice and run me through some classic rollerski intensity sessions, but I was still only able to skate rollerski for 15 minutes and I wasn’t cleared to run yet.
Finally in November I was cleared to start getting back into running. I don’t know what I was hoping for when my Physio said I could start running again but I was definitely not expecting an interval run/walk plan that would go on for 2 months and only get me to running consistently for half an hour!
For some reason I thought, when Physio Dave said “you can start running again,” that I would just get up and be able to run for 2 hours straight with no problem. This “interval” plan came as a shock. Running was fine for the first little bit but the more running I added, the more my hip would hurt.
There’s been increasing talk over the past few years on the topic of body image, eating disorders, and the importance of moving these topics into normal conversation. Some particularly powerful posts have come from Janelle Greer and Jessie Diggins who opened up about the struggles they have faced and overcome. Although there is increasing talk on these topics there are still a lot of unknowns and a general lack of education. Just last month New York Times wrote an article citing normal female development as a “cruel twist” in youth sports, suggesting that girls who develop normally might not be able to maintain their speed. Hopefully with more discussions, research, and the continued growth in female sport there will be an increase in the education of athletes, coaches, and the general public resulting in a healthier environment for female athletes and perhaps greater female athlete retention.
Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (previously called The Female Athlete Triad)
Low energy availability, functional hypothalamic amenorrhoea, and osteoporosis (1). What do these three conditions have in common? They form the Female Athlete Triad – a syndrome of three interconnected conditions that occurs when energy intake does not meet energy output (2). However, in more recent years this condition has been replaced by Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S): a complex syndrome caused by insufficient energy intake that effects females and males and has a wide range of negative physiological and psychological consequences including: impaired metabolic rate, decreased bone health, decreased immunity, depression, increased injury risk, and impaired menstrual function (3).
I’ve never had a consistent period and usually lose it during the race season. However, after Nationals in 2017 it never came back. At the time I didn’t think too much of it: I’d had a solid Nationals, was feeling fine, and had lost some weight over the course of the ski season which I was happy about because I’d been worried I was overweight – everybody says it’s a good thing to lose weight, right? And people are always pointing out that thinner girls tend to be faster. Training restarted, new goals were set, and I decided that my big goal for 2017/2018 was to finally put on some muscle, an area I had always struggled with. Around this time I went in for an annual appointment with my sports med doctor who diagnosed me with amenorrhoea (abnormal loss of menstruation), something I had never heard of before. However, my BMI was now at a normal level and thus we weren’t sure what was actually causing my amenorrhoea. So, I was referred to see an ultrasound technician, a dietitian, a gynaecologist and get my blood tested.
Because of waiting lists and general busyness these various appointments took place over the course of the summer, fall, and winter. Thus, training was ongoing and with my goal of gaining muscle and getting stronger I was going to the gym a lot. And, surprise, surprise, I started gaining weight; over the course of the summer I gained just over 10lbs (from around 125-135lb). This I found terrifying. As a society we tend to praise someone who steps on the scale and sees a lower number, so seeing the numbers climb each time I stepped on was to me a sign that I was getting fat and that my body was out of my control. I wasn’t really sure what to do and just ended up worrying about it for the next number of months.
To make a long story short, the conclusion was that I was eating a healthy balanced diet but perhaps not refuelling at the proper times (ex. during, immediately after workouts). There were a few things she mentioned that really stuck with me:
It’s super normal to see athletes gain weight over the off season and to lose weight over the race season.
If you’re working to gain muscle, you need to give your body the fuel it needs, and it’s possible that you’ll gain a bit of fat too. If you are under-fueled, your body is just going to try and find energy from other areas, and one of these areas is muscle. (This is what makes refuelling during and after workouts so crucial!)
It’s important to listen to your body’s hunger cues to know when to eat. However, sometimes these hunger cues aren’t reliable, so try to recognize this and keep your body well nourished!
After seeing the dietitian I was a bit less worried about my increase in weight but was still concerned. Because of this I decided to start monitoring caloric intake with the plan of cutting things back. This was obviously not the smartest plan, especially because it was a volume block, and resulted in me bonking hard in a workout at the end of the week. That made me second guess my dieting idea and I decided to talk to my coach to get a second opinion.
I’ve been very fortunate to have a coach who, although male, has created an environment where I feel comfortable talking about topics like body image and amenorrhea. He’s also done a good job of making sure that the focus is on health instead of weight: in answer to my question about whether I should be on a diet, he rationally pointed out the importance of properly fueling one’s body. After talking to my dietitian and coach my worry about my weight gain somewhat subsided. But, at the beginning of the race season this worry returned. I wasn’t losing as much weight as I had been hoping to, and I again didn’t properly refuel, woke up in the night starving, and ended up having a pretty crappy race the next day. After the months of worrying and the conversations I finally realized that I had gotten a bit carried away. In my mind I had confounded a lighter weight with a faster time. But, I realized that at the end of the day my goal is to have the fastest time on the race course not the lowest BMI. It can be easy to get caught up in losing weight to potentially be faster in a race or two, but skiing is a long term sport. I don’t want to just race fast this year; I also want to be racing fast four years from now, and that means giving my body the energy it needs now.
At the end of January my period returned. I would lie if I were to say I was excited; periods suck, but I was reminded that this means that my body has enough energy, so check mark!
In February I finally had my appointment with the Gynaecologist. She took a look at my blood test from July and pretty much freaked out about my hormone levels, telling me that I needed to get on birth control to produce a consistent period. Otherwise, I would run the risk of decreased bone density – bone growth and remodelling requires healthy hormones. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced and decided to consult a number of other individuals before I made the decision of whether birth control was the right choice for me. (I also asked if I could retake the blood test now that my period had returned the previous month.)
I talked to fellow athletes, my coach, and read a bunch of articles on the subject. There are still many unanswered questions on whether hormonal therapy actually increases bone mineral density or reduces stress fracture risk (2). There has also been some concern on birth control having some negative outcomes. And, I felt like taking birth control to restore my period wouldn’t fix the real problem: If I’m not having my period then perhaps I am not meeting my energy needs and I would rather address the real problem than mask it. When I met with my doctor and we went over my more recent blood tests results my hormone levels had returned to a normal level and she agreed that it was okay to not go on birth control as long as I was getting a period at least every two months.
*Whether or not to go on birth control is a super personal/individual decision and although I decided that it wasn’t the right one for me that doesn’t mean taking birth control is a “wrong” decision. Everyone is different and must do what works best for themselves.
I haven’t been able to get a clear answer on what precisely caused my amenorrhea but I think it was a combination of things; the body is super complex, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a combination of not enough energy intake (especially during the race season), the physical stress that I place on my body from all the training/racing, and the mental stress from life in general (#studentathlete). But, although I may not have a clear answer, I did learn a lot; if I could distill it into 3 key takeaways they would be:
Listen to your body. If you’re not getting your period use it as a sign that your body is trying to tell you something – pay attention and talk to your doctor.
Support. Surround yourself with people who will listen to you when you’re feeling insecure or unsure and who will be a rational voice when you can’t be one for yourself.
Development is normal and good. Yes, you may gain some weight but you will also get stronger – you will not only rock in the gym, but you will also destroy that race course!
Love yourself more cause you, my friend, are worth it.
Mountjoy, Margo, et al. “The IOC consensus statement: beyond the female athlete triad—Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).” Br J Sports Med 48.7 (2014): 491-497. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/7/491