When power to weight becomes less than powerful

Susie Dear is a British rower, aiming for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Here she discusses her struggles with weight management. If you identify with any of these issues, please seek professional help. You can connect with Susie on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Power to weight, a term that athletes are familiar with; but for some people it’s a triggering phrase.

In 2012 I learnt to row at Oxford Brookes University and for the past five years I have been at Leander Club along with training and racing with the British Rowing Team. Rowing has changed my life and it was the love of the team that initially got me hooked. I have met some incredible people, raced all over the world, and it has also led me to a career in Sport Psychology. I will forever be grateful for what the sport of rowing has given me, however it has also made me very sick.

The best view is at the top of the cliff which is also where you are closest to falling.

I had my best season in 2021; a bronze medal at the World Cup 3, 2x Henley Royal Regatta wins and part of the Tokyo Olympic Training Squad. It was a fantastic way to start the Paris 2024 Olympic cycle and I was so excited for what the next three years would bring.

However it felt as though my 2024 dreams came crashing down when I got diagnosed with RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport) in January 2022; I had fallen off the cliff. RED-S is the result of insufficient caloric intake and/or excessive energy expenditure and can alter many physiological systems. I felt completely exhausted, suffered with migraines, nausea, blurred vision, dizziness and severe weight loss. My skin became very bad, particularly on my face where it would become rashy and swell up so badly I would have to go to hospital. It is safe to say I looked and felt awful.

So how did I fall? For far too long I would think to myself, ‘if I could be 2kg lighter I will have a better power to weight and go faster’, or ‘I shouldn’t eat x this evening as we have a weigh in tomorrow’ for example.

The way I thought I could be faster was to be lighter, when in fact my focus should have been improving my technical model and my physiology.

At the time I had no idea how damaging this internal dialogue was and I had little respect for the fuelling needs of my body. Although a sport like rowing power to weight does play a role in speed, like anything too much of something can make you sick. I had little to no balance, and I seriously overlooked how important a healthy and well functioning body is in creating a successful and fast athlete.

This internal dialogue has really threatened my rowing career- yes I was fast and on top but it was not sustainable. The past year and a half I have totally committed myself to recovering from RED-S and am trusting that periods of adversity bring growth. I am so grateful to my support network who helped me prioritise my fuelling and recovery and I am pleased to say I am back rowing at a healthy weight, and have a far better understanding of how important training behaviours are when considering the longevity of my sport. People often ask, ‘if you could turn back the clock, what would you do differently?’ In simple terms I always say EAT! – however I have first-hand experience in knowing that is far easier said than done. Here are my top three tips on detecting and preventing RED-S:

1) As an athlete your body is your most valuable asset, so don’t paint the red flags white. RED-S symptoms may vary athlete to athlete, but if your body is consistently struggling whether that be through injury, illness or a constant decline in athletic performance, listen to it. It’s far better to take preventative measures, for example raising how you feel with someone in your support network, or communicating with your coach and forming a suitable recovery plan, than being so far in the bin it takes 1.5 years to eventually crawl out of it.

2) Food isn’t just fuel for training, it is fuelling your recovery. Educate yourself on what food you need and when. In my experience having a greater understanding on the types of food required to train, recover and therefore perform helped me see that sufficient fuelling was just as important as training itself.

Without adequate fuel, we haven’t maximised the training session. We wouldn’t skip a set of squats in the gym so don’t skip a meal.

3) Try not to guide your calorie intake based off the number on the scale, but rather how you feel. It is totally irrelevant to weigh in ‘light’ if you are unable to do the training. Medals are not handed out for being ‘light’, they are earned by going fast. Last but not least.. don’t punish yourself for having that bag of mini eggs after a hard day training…you deserve it!