Athletics Weekly - - Spotlight -

BOBBY CLAY’s track rac­ing re­turn might not have taken the form she ini­tially imag­ined, but her com­pet­i­tive come­back in Manch­ester last week­end marked a sig­nif­i­cant step, or pedal stroke, in the right di­rec­tion.

She will, she in­sists, al­ways be a run­ner and the 21-year-old’s pas­sion for ath­let­ics clearly still burns strongly. But, for now, cy­cling gives her train­ing more pur­pose and pro­vides an out­let in which she can unleash her “in­ner beast”.

“I’ve had so many peo­ple ask me ‘oh, so are you a cy­clist now?’ and it kind of hurts my soul,” laughs Clay, who formed part of the Lough­bor­ough pur­suit and sprint teams at the BUCS track cy­cling cham­pi­onships.

“I’m like, ‘no, I’m still a run­ner! I’m just a run­ner on a bike!’ I know ath­let­ics is where my heart is com­pletely but I’m re­ally re­spect­ful of cy­clists, hav­ing just dipped my toes into their world.

“I kind of have this in­ner beast that has been caged for a long time now and I re­alise I need to com­pete. I slog my­self on the watt bike. I got to the point where I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if these ses­sions ac­tu­ally got put to­wards some­thing?’ Be­cause at the mo­ment I’m not on the track and I’m not on the cross. I’m not rac­ing. Yet day in, day out, I’m train­ing as if I’m prep­ping for tri­als for some­thing. I’m train­ing as if I have that ‘thing’ and I just don’t have it.”

It has been more than two years since Clay last pulled on her spikes for a race on the ath­let­ics track, which co­in­ci­den­tally also took place in Manch­ester, in Au­gust 2016.

And it has been just over a year since the 2015 Euro­pean ju­nior 1500m cham­pion first shared de­tails of her os­teo­poro­sis di­ag­no­sis, with her hon­est and hard-hit­ting ac­count in the pages of this mag­a­zine ex­plain­ing how a regime of over-train­ing com­bined with in­ad­e­quate nutri­tion had led to the syn­drome of rel­a­tive en­ergy de­fi­ciency in sport (RED-S).

“I am 20 years old and I have never had a pe­riod,” she wrote. “I’m 20 years old and I have os­teo­poro­sis. I’m 20 years old and I have be­come ‘that girl’. The girl who over-trained. The girl who un­der fu­elled. The girl who we are all told about, yet we all just be­lieve ‘it won’t hap­pen to me’.”

The past 12 months have been far from easy. Work­ing with her coach Rob Den­mark, Clay be­lieved that her pa­tience was be­gin­ning to pay off, un­til she was dealt yet an­other blow.

“Over the sum­mer I was in­creas­ing the amount of strides I could do at the end of my drill ses­sions and I was get­ting up to about 10 x 200m be­cause we re­alised my form when I’m run­ning a bit quicker is a lot more ef­fi­cient and is a lot bet­ter for me than when I’m jog­ging,” ex­plains the 2013 World Youth Cham­pi­onships fourth-placer.

“We were try­ing to get it to the point where I could run quicker but I wasn’t try­ing to do mile upon mile. It was more about my form and just get­ting my body used to my feet be­ing on the ground again. I built it up so slowly and then, it was just out of the blue. One day I went out, did my drills, was two reps in, and I just felt some­thing go. I knew straight away that I had snapped my shin again. When I got a scan it turned out I had bro­ken one and had stress frac­tures in the other.

“I get to a cer­tain point when I’m re­turn­ing to run­ning and, even though I’ve taken a dif­fer­ent ap­proach each time,

I’ll be com­pletely pain-free and then I just break again, which has been re­ally dif­fi­cult be­cause I’ve been so pa­tient,” she adds.

“It was just like I was bang­ing my head against the wall.

“So, at the mo­ment, I’m still on the watt bike a lot, I’m do­ing my walk­ing drills and I’m track cy­cling just be­cause it gives my watt bike a fo­cus. It’s good for me, to re­main sane, to have some­thing com­pet­i­tive to do.”

Clay, who is study­ing psy­chol­ogy at Lough­bor­ough Univer­sity, knows it is im­por­tant not to put pres­sure on her­self but she is do­ing all she can to pre­pare her body and mind for a run­ning re­turn. As well as her cy­cling, right now she is fo­cused on the fi­nal year of her

de­gree stud­ies, which in­cludes com­plet­ing her dis­ser­ta­tion on ‘the so­cially con­structed male per­cep­tion of a fe­male pe­riod’.

“I’m go­ing to keep do­ing my re­hab un­til the new year, which is a big­ger block of time for me not to be push­ing my­self back into try­ing to run,” she says. “It has ei­ther been ‘I’m com­ing back’ or ‘I’m in­jured’ but sort of, no in be­tween.

“As much as I want to be back on the track rac­ing and I would love to be in the mud do­ing cross coun­try, I have re­alised that my body still isn’t ready. It is giv­ing me all of the signs that it is but then I’m get­ting to a point and it’s just break­ing again.

“I haven’t set a date or any­thing in my head. I’m al­most treat­ing it as, I’m lucky to have this time to put my body in a po­si­tion where it is the strong­est it could pos­si­bly be. Be­cause when you’re in the sea­son, you don’t al­ways have the time or the en­ergy to do that.

“I’m hop­ing that it pays off so that when I say ‘come on legs, let’s run’, they will fi­nally be like ‘okay, ac­tu­ally yeah, we’re ready now!’ I’m try­ing to see it as a bless­ing.”

RED-S aware­ness

CLAY had been keen to share her ex­pe­ri­ence 12 months ago in the hope that it might help to raise aware­ness and act as a warn­ing for oth­ers. Her ar­ti­cle in

AW prompted a huge re­ac­tion from the ath­let­ics com­mu­nity, with many of­fer­ing well wishes and sup­port and some oth­ers shar­ing sto­ries of their own.

RED-S was formerly more com­monly known as the fe­male ath­lete triad of os­teo­poro­sis, dis­or­dered eat­ing and amen­or­rhea, but a sim­i­lar syn­drome was also iden­ti­fied as af­fect­ing male ath­letes, lead­ing to ‘rel­a­tive en­ergy de­fi­ciency in sport’ be­com­ing the term to cover both.

Read­ing Clay’s story prompted former GB in­ter­na­tional Ma­rina St­ed­man to re­spond and on Twit­ter, she wrote: “GB in­ter­na­tional dis­tance run­ners in­clud­ing me and Shireen Hig­gins (her sis­ter, fel­low ‘Samy’ twin) were in a scheme to test for this over 30 years ago and girls were iden­ti­fied with os­teo­poro­sis even then, why has noth­ing changed?”

She later told AW: “I had to write in be­cause it was so shock­ing that it is still go­ing on to­day. This was 30 years ago – there were run­ners who sud­denly got re­ally thin and be­came in­ter­na­tional class but had to give up run­ning be­cause they were told they had the bones of an 80-year-old.”

Hig­gins is now an ath­let­ics coach her­self and pro­vides her ath­letes and their par­ents with nutri­tion in­for­ma­tion but recog­nises that striv­ing too hard for early suc­cess can some­times come at the cost of longer-term devel­op­ment.

“I think, be­cause there’s quite a lot of (in­ter­na­tional) vests when they are young, they all want to train re­ally hard, get the vest but then half of them stop,” she says.

“Do they say you can’t get a GB vest un­less you’ve got a cer­tain per­cent­age of body fat or you can prove that you’ve had a pe­riod? I don’t know how you would do it but you al­most need to make it a dis­in­cen­tive.

“You do run well in the short term, but you can’t last very long.”

In a state­ment, the na­tional gov­ern­ing body said: “Bri­tish Ath­let­ics works with a num­ber of part­ner or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing the EIS (English In­sti­tute of Sport), to en­sure aware­ness and treat­ment of the con­di­tions that are part of the rel­a­tive en­ergy de­fi­ciency in sport (RED-S) syn­drome. We are keen to in­crease aware­ness gen­er­ally of this con­di­tion in track and field and can rec­om­mend the re­sources avail­able at: health4per­for­

“In ad­di­tion to par­tic­i­pat­ing in work­shops for ath­letes, coaches, sports science and med­i­cal staff, mon­i­tor­ing for men­strual health and en­ergy avail­abil­ity is an in­te­gral part of sup­port­ing ath­letes on the World Class Pro­gramme. When is­sues are iden­ti­fied, ath­letes are sup­ported in a num­ber of ways with med­i­cal, nu­tri­tional and other spe­cial­ist ad­vice and in­ter­ven­tion.”

For Clay, one of the main ‘tools’ she has used has been ‘talk­ing’.

“Peo­ple feel more com­fort­able to talk about it and I think that’s a mas­sive step,” she says. “The more peo­ple that do talk about pe­ri­ods, over-train­ing, un­der-eat­ing – any­thing which is con­sid­ered to be ‘taboo’ – is bril­liant, be­cause they are not taboo sub­jects, they are sub­jects which need to be dis­cussed through­out the wider world as well as sport.

“There has been pos­i­tive change but we can al­ways do more.”

Anna Boniface, who ran for Eng­land at the 2017 Toronto Water­front Marathon but was forced to drop out with in­jury, has been shar­ing her own story on her blog annaboni­ in­sights.

She agrees with Clay and be­lieves her fel­low run­ner’s ini­tial open­ness about what she had been through acted as some­thing of a cat­a­lyst.

“I’ve just been find­ing out as much as I can about it and then shar­ing my story with oth­ers be­cause I think hav­ing this open dis­cus­sion about it is re­ally im­por­tant,” says Boniface. “Hats off to Bobby who started that sort of process be­cause that I think re­ally got the ball rolling for other peo­ple to start talk­ing about it as well.

“A lot of it comes down to chang­ing at­ti­tudes within our sport be­cause I think there is this at­ti­tude that you need to be a skinny ath­lete to be able to run fast,” she adds. “We need to re­ally put out there that if you drop weight it’s not sus­tain­able.

“I’m sur­prised how long I did sus­tain it. You get into this false sense of se­cu­rity, but it’s not a long-term sit­u­a­tion. If you re­ally want to be good at your sport you’ve got to think about longevity.”


BOTH Clay and Boniface have found sup­port in #TRAINBRAVE ( – a new cam­paign cre­ated to raise aware­ness of eat­ing dis­or­ders and RED-S in en­durance sports.

Launched by 2:34 marathoner Tom Fair­brother and sports di­eti­tian Re­nee McGre­gor, #TRAINBRAVE fea­tured in the Novem­ber 1 edi­tion of AW as Fair­brother ex­plained how he over­came his eat­ing dis­or­der.

The cam­paign pro­vides re­sources and a com­mu­nity for dis­cus­sion, with a free launch event tak­ing place in Lon­don on De­cem­ber 9.

“It’s nice to know you’re not alone,” Clay says. “You can speak to an en­tire com­mu­nity of peo­ple where you know none of them are go­ing to be judge­men­tal and none of them are go­ing to think you’re strange or any­thing like that.

“There’s a vast ar­ray of ex­pe­ri­ences – it’s not just all fe­males or just all males. I think creat­ing that com­mu­nity is re­ally im­por­tant and some­thing that should have been done ear­lier but at the same time, you can al­ways say what should have been done.”


AN­OTHER tool be­ing utilised by Clay is the FitrWo­man app. Cre­ated by ath­lete and sports sci­en­tist Dr Ge­orgie Bru­in­vels and Or­reco’s prod­uct devel­op­ment man­ager

Grainne Cone­frey, the app is de­signed to let users track their men­strual cy­cle and symp­toms, and to pro­vide daily train­ing and nutri­tion sug­ges­tions spe­cific to their in­di­vid­ual cy­cle.

The app helps ex­er­cis­ing women work with their cy­cle, not fight against it.

“One of the find­ings from the first study of my PhD, where I sur­veyed over 1000 women who were run­ning the Lon­don Marathon, was that a third of them re­ported that their men­strual cy­cle dis­rupts their ex­er­cise train­ing and per­for­mance. This made me re­ally want to es­tab­lish why and what we can proac­tively do to re­duce that im­pact,” ex­plains Bru­in­vels.

“We’ve de­vel­oped an app to help fa­cil­i­tate un­der­stand­ing, in­stil best prac­tices around the men­strual cy­cle, ac­tu­ally use the changes in hor­mones to op­ti­mise train­ing and per­for­mance and also en­able women to mon­i­tor their own cy­cle, help­ing them to be pre­pared while also al­low­ing them to see if their cy­cle changes, for ex­am­ple if they miss a pe­riod.

“Hav­ing some­one like Emelia Gorecka (GB in­ter­na­tional and 2012 world ju­nior 3000m bronze medal­list) as an am­bas­sador re­ally helps be­cause she de­picts the pos­i­tive body im­age around be­ing a healthy, happy ath­lete. We’re try­ing to use pos­i­tive role mod­els to help peo­ple see that is pos­si­ble and nor­mal.”

FitrWo­man fea­tures recipe ideas tai­lored to match spe­cific men­strual cy­cle phases, as well as phys­i­o­log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tions about what is hap­pen­ing in the body dur­ing the cy­cle. The hope is that, should users no­tice changes in things like body tem­per­a­ture, en­ergy lev­els, breath­ing rate, strength or even tired­ness, the app can help ex­plain these and help stop any un­nec­es­sary con­cern or stress. Sig­nif­i­cantly, FitrWo­man says the app is never de­signed to say ‘no’ – it helps girls and women be smart, aim­ing to help them per­form on any day in their cy­cle.

“That’s what FitrWo­man is de­signed for – to em­power these women by giv­ing them in­for­ma­tion and, if they are deal­ing with any kind of symp­toms, sug­gest­ing ac­tion­able so­lu­tions,” says FitrWo­man’s Es­ther Gold­smith. “They can track ex­actly when they are bleed­ing, log any symp­toms, see whether these hap­pen ev­ery cy­cle, and then proac­tively man­age them. FitrWo­man en­ables them to be pre­pared. It helps them be aware of their body.”

See fitrwo­ to ac­cess the app. Or­reco is pas­sion­ate about get­ting these im­por­tant mes­sages to girls and women so want to en­sure it is freely avail­able to every­one

Bobby Clay: 2015 Euro­pean U20 1500m cham­pion

Back on track: Bobby Clay (left) formed part of Lough­bor­ough’s BUCS record-break­ing pur­suit team in Manch­ester

Anna Boniface: Eng­land run­ner has shared her own story on her blog

FitrWo­man: app is de­signed to help ex­er­cis­ing women work with their cy­cle, not fight against it

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