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Using Strength Training to Salvage a Season

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It’s July—the Tour is in full swing, the days are hot and long, it’s prime riding season for cyclists, and it’s race season for triathletes. All is good except for one thing: your performances are lacking.

You feel flat on the bike, and your runs just aren’t as springy as you would expect at this point in the season. Your nutrition, sleep, and recovery are all where they need to be, and you’re desperate to find a way to salvage the second half of the year. How do you do it?

You might be surprised, but strength training with a focus on posture restoration, might just be what saves your season. Yes, you read that right!

Over the last decade I’ve helped countless riders ‘get back their speed’ and smash the second half of the year. While often there is resistance in the first two weeks, once the performance gains begin, the emails and messages I receive are always “why didn’t I do this sooner?”

But strength training halfway through the season is a bit different than if you were to start in the fall, as your body is in full-on riding mode. This means the tissues and joints of your body are geared to deal with the forces of riding a bike, not lifting heavy things. The rules of the game change quite a bit, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play!

1. Start with breathing

Breathing (yes, breathing) done properly can not only help you maximize your VO2 max, but it also allows you to recover from hard efforts and training sessions that much quicker.

For example, a one-arm lat stretch with breathing is a great exercise to help open up a tight ribcage, tight lats, and tight hips. It’s just five deep breaths on each side.

Focus on taking a 360-degree breath in, and slowly let the air out through your nose as you sink down into a deeper squat. This is a passive stretch.

2. Get dynamic with movements that help rebalance your joints

Putting your joints through their full available range of motion not only helps you light up the nervous system, get the body ready for work, and lengthen muscles that may be tight, but it also activates other muscles that may have gotten lazy.

Incorporate these dynamic movements into your training plan:

Side lunge with hands overhead: Six each side

Dynamic side planks on knees: Five to eight each side (two sets)

Wall spinal stabilization: 10 to 15 seconds each pose (two sets)

3. Lift moderately heavy things, three to four times a week

The key here is to keep things moderately heavy as you are just starting to lift, since the tissues need time to adapt (but that doesn’t mean you should avoid doing a little work).

The first two weeks of strength training should be done with weights at the light/lower end of moderate effort, as your body needs time to start adapting to the new demands. This is called the anatomical adaptation phase, and is the first of the five stages of strength training.

Kettlebell swings: 12 to 15 lightweight reps (four sets), focus on learning technique and “popping” hips at the top

Band rows: Eight reps (three sets)

Goblet squats: Eight reps (three sets)

Deadlift not from the floor: Eight reps (three sets)

Paloff press: Five reps each side (three sets)

Go ahead and find a weight that is a five or six on a 1 to 10 scale, and perform each with optimal technique.

4. Consistency is key

Blowing yourself out during one workout a week won’t do anything but make a massive withdrawal from your energy and abilities. Training is only efficient if the least amount of time and energy was allocated in order to attain the results you’re after. Unfortunately, as endurance athletes we tend to think going super hard every time is the way to go.

Aim for two quality strength sessions a week. Each one should not take you longer than 35 minutes in total.

5. Keep it simple and short

Yes, you read that right, 35 minutes or less. Strength training usually evokes images of barbells and Arnold schwartenegger, but really, all you need is four square feet of space (along with a kettlebell and a wall, as you’ve seen above).

Warm-up

Deep squat one-arm stretch with breath

Side lunge with hands overhead

Dynamic side planks on knees

Wall scap slides

Strength

Kettlebell swings:12 to 15 reps (four sets)

Band rows: Eight reps (three sets)

Goblet squats: Eight reps (three sets)

Deadlift not from the floor: Eight reps (four sets)

Paloff press: Five reps each side (three sets)

If you’d like to learn more about using strength training to boost your cycling and triathlon performance, my TrainingPeaks courses will give you everything you need to start building and designing highly potent year round strength programs to boost your athletes’ abilities.

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Become a Better Coach by Becoming a Better Listener

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Have you ever been told you’re a good listener? If so, be grateful. Although coaches are generally thought of as people who tell others what to do, the best coaches put as much effort and care into listening to their athletes as they do into instructing them.

If you’ve never been told you’re a good listener, don’t fret. Any coach can improve this skill with the right approach. I know it because I’ve done it myself.

The thing that made me a not-so-good listener in the past was an intuitive sense that the best way to get an athlete to do something I judged necessary was to simply tell them to do it. This worked fine when the thing I told an athlete to do was something they wanted to do anyway, like the workouts they hired me to draw up for them. But in cases where I wanted an athlete to do something they were resistant to doing, like changing a habitual behavior that was holding back their progress, I found that telling them to do it only increased their resistance. The reason for this, I learned eventually, was that (as any psychologist worth his salt will tell you) people don’t like being told what to do. In these instances, listening—a certain type of listening—works much better. 

The type of listening I’m referring to is known as motivational interviewing. Psychologists use this technique to bring patients around to making changes such as quitting smoking and improving their diet, but coaches can use an informal version of the same method to help athletes make changes they need to make, as I now do with most of my athletes. One example is Craig, an ambitious young trail runner with whom I used the technique to successfully work through a tendency to force workouts and start too fast in races.

Here’s how Psychology Today describes the motivational interviewing process:

In a supportive manner, a motivational interviewer encourages clients to talk about their need for change and their own reasons for wanting to change. The role of the interviewer is mainly to evoke a conversation about change and commitment. The interviewer listens and reflects back the client’s thoughts so that the client can hear their reasons and motivations expressed back to them. 

Practicing motivational interviewing effectively requires that four basic rules be followed at all times. Let’s have a look at them.

Show empathy

When athletes resist making a needed change, they always do so for a reason. Your efforts to coax them toward change will be greatly helped if you show that you understand their resistance instead of just dismissing it. In Craig’s case, I let him know I understood that his tendency to force certain workouts and to start too fast in races came from a strong desire to improve, a desire that I respected and in no way sought to dampen. I could feel Craig’s relief as he came to recognize that we both wanted the same thing for him—the only question was how to get it.

Create clarity

Anytime you’re facing a difficult decision, it can be clarifying to write down the pros and cons of each option you’re considering. Motivational interviewing involves an interactive version of this exercise. The idea is to get your athlete to talk through and evaluate the various potential paths toward their goals. Your role is to reflect what you hear from the athlete back to them in more precise language that helps them see the situation differently.

Returning to the previous example, I was able to get Craig to articulate a couple of reasons for not changing his approach to workouts and races, which included the possibility that he would “lose his edge” if he backed off. But he also gained clarity on the potential downside of not changing (namely, a continuation of the trend of fading toward the end of races) and the possible benefits of backing off, not the least of which was that it would probably make both training and racing less stressful and painful. 

Don’t argue

In motivational interviewing, it’s okay to offer thoughts for the other party to consider, but you shouldn’t force ideas on them or contest their own thoughts about the challenge you’re trying to solve together. If you let yourself get drawn into a debate, you will only increase the athlete’s resistance to change. 

At one point in my work with Craig, I asked him if he thought that most elite runners forced workouts the way he did and he answered that he didn’t know. I then told him about the summer I spent with the Northern Arizona Elite professional running team, whose members routinely backed off and even abandoned workouts that weren’t going well. In sharing this piece of information, I made no effort to drive home the lesson. But because Craig very much wanted to become an elite runner himself, he took it in. 

Let go

One of the major goals of motivational interviewing is to support self-efficacy, or the ability to overcome challenges without outside help. This requires that the interviewer allow the client to make and learn from mistakes. Often, a person who’s wrestling with change has to fail one more time by doing it their way before they’re truly ready to initiate change after motivational interviewing.

This is exactly what happened with Craig. In his next race, he once again started too hard and faded in the late going. That same evening we linked up by phone and went through one more round of motivational interviewing, in which I had little left to do but ask, in so many words, “How’d that work out for you?”

By the time the call ended I was certain Craig was finally fully ready to give my way a try, and he did, running what he described to me later as the race of his life just two days later. Seemingly out of contention in the first third of the race, he blitzed the final third, doing to other competitors as they had done to him in past races, and moved up to 10th place overall at the finish line.

As someone who wasn’t born a good listener, I was gratified to have helped an athlete achieve such a major personal success through skillful listening. To learn more about how to use motivational interviewing in the coaching context, check out the book Motivational Interviewing in Nutrition and Fitness by Dawn Clifford and Laura Curtis.

The post Become a Better Coach by Becoming a Better Listener appeared first on TrainingPeaks.

Productivity Tips For Coaches With Over 10 Athletes

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As a self-employed business owner, a triathlon coach has several hats to juggle. Managing schedules and answering emails and texts is part of the constant cycle of a normal day for most coaches. Include marketing, meeting and speaking with new athletes, and implementing new business ideas, and you have a full week of tasks. Without a daily, weekly, and monthly plan you’ll run into a lack of business growth, burnout, and might even eventually find yourself out of business as a triathlon coach.

One of the most important factors for running an efficient business is to utilize a few easy skills that allow you to keep things in focus. Organization isn’t a talent, it’s a skill—so is punctuality, and budgeting (time and money). 

Anyone can learn to do these three things, and together they will lead to running a better, more efficient business. Here are a few suggestions for organizing your week (I suggest doing on a weekly basis) so you create a routine and are aware of your current situation at all times. 

Coaching Business Tip 1

Know your budget on a monthly basis. This is indicative of an invested and intelligent business owner.  

Balance your checkbook (bank account) on a weekly basis. Knowing how much money you have on hand to pay your taxes and your bills, or to spend on a new marketing idea, is as important as anything else you’ll do. 

Coaching Business Tip 2

As the old adage goes, you can’t improve what you don’t measure.  

On a monthly basis, review your current month against the same month from the prior two years, as well as the current year to date against the year to date from the prior two years. Seeing growth (or not seeing growth) will allow you to focus on what you need to do, or need to keep doing.

Coaching Business Tip 3

When your athletes know you care (and I mean actually care), they’ll stay with you for a long time.  

If you have a regular meeting with your athlete(s), stick to it! In my case, I schedule phone calls with my athletes each week at the same time and on the same day. I have a few athletes who I’ve been talking with at this cadence for many years.

It’s just part of my normal week, and staying in touch with my athletes makes keeping up with their training and what’s going on in their lives easy.

Coaching Business Tip 4

Athletes like to be recognized. 

Look through your athletes’ TrainingPeaks files on a daily basis. Know what your athletes have completed that day and leave them a comment. Tell them ‘good job’ or ‘we’ll talk about this on our next phone call.’

Sit down for a stretch of time and go through all your TrainingPeaks emails and give your athletes a shot of encouragement.

Coaching Business Tip 5

Be the coach who is organized and delivers training schedules several days ahead of when they should start.

If you have a dozen athletes, keeping track of their schedules takes a serious level of organization. I’ve learned that by creating a spreadsheet (I rotate four athlete schedules each week) I am better able to be authentic with their training plans and able to deliver them on time. With a system like this, you don’t have to create 12 schedules every week or do them on different days of the week. Remember the “routine” we talked about?

Pick a day and time where you shut off your internet and email, and only write your training plans for about a third of your athletes. The next week, write a schedule for the next third, and so on. With this plan, you’ll get a week off from writing plans each month.

This keeps it fresh and you’ll actually enjoy writing training schedules. We can all agree that it’s no fun to pull out your computer on Sunday night at 10 pm (and we’ve all done it!) and stare at 15 athletes who need a schedule by the next morning. 

Bottom Line

Once you design a routine to support your athletes, stick with it and make it happen week after week. It’s no different than an athlete’s training schedule, except this one is about your livelihood and perhaps a wee bit more important to you personally.

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Managing Open Water Swim Anxiety

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I almost had the very first panic attack ever in my life on July 8, 2012.

I was standing in three feet of shallow water in the Boulder Reservoir, a few minutes prior to the start of the Boulder Peak Triathlon. The water was surprisingly cold and overwhelmingly dark, and I was surrounded by tremendously fit athletes my age (all of whom I envisioned would soon be freestyling on top of my inexperienced and poorly-crafted swim stroke). 

I had never put on a wetsuit until five minutes prior, and I had never swam in an open body of water for sport. Further, I had never completed a triathlon before. In that moment, I believed I was out of my element and began questioning my ability to succeed in the swim. 

Long story short, I was terrified. 

I’d like to think I wasn’t alone in that momentary experience of dread. In fact, I know I’m not. Swim anxiety is a common experience for triathletes of all ability and experience levels, but shows up especially for those relatively new to the sport or new to swimming in open water.

Thankfully for me in that moment, I knew a few mental skills that I could utilize to work with the anxiety I was feeling. These skills helped me rebuild trust so I could effectively navigate the swim. What’s more, these skills are highly trainable for any athlete, regardless of ability level or length of time in competition. 

Taking Command of Your Internal Dialogue

The first of these skills was to take hold of my mind and direct my self-talk. I knew managing my thoughts was imperative to counterbalance the flood of adrenaline and cortisol I was feeling in my body. I knew that my self-talk could either heighten what was happening physiologically if I continued to spiral with anxiety-driven thoughts, or dampen the nervous system activity I was experiencing through taking command of my internal dialogue. 

When it comes to managing internal dialogue involved in our performance, there are two types of sport-psychology thinking patterns your athletes can employee: instructional self-talk and motivational self-talk. 

Instructional Self-Talk

Instructional self-talk is the manner in which we guide ourselves through the mechanics involved in a specific skill set. Essentially, instructional self-talk is directed at talking through the specifics of the movement involved in a particular sport. 

Swimming offers a perfect opportunity for instructional self-talk, and I immediately created a game plan for what I was going to instruct in my thoughts: reach, pull, breathe. Now, in truth there were a million possibilities of what I could have instructed or reminded myself regarding how to swim in the moment, but I didn’t want to overcomplicate things. 

Simple words or phrases that target the task at hand, and that genuinely resonated with my experience of movement, was what was called for (and typically work best when facing performance anxiety), and I chose to focus on the most basic components of swimming to keep my mind on task and remind myself what to do. 

Motivational Self-Talk

Motivational self-talk is like being your own internal coach and cheerleader at the same time. Motivational self-talk is about reconnecting to the belief that you can and will be successful, ultimately building self-efficacy (the extent to which we believe we can achieve specific tasks).

Even though I hadn’t practiced any open water swimming prior to Boulder Peak, I swam plenty of laps in the pool in preparation. It’s not as though I didn’t know how to swim at all, it’s just that the context of swimming differed so much from what I was used to that my belief system was being challenged (hence the sudden flood of anxiety). 

I had to direct my thoughts so that I could once again believe I was going to be successful. Once I reminded myself of my previous successes swimming laps in the pool throughout training, I realized I was adequately prepared and I then began to relax and noticed my bodily reactions started to calm down. 

I also chose a few short phrases that I would repeat in a mantra-like fashion through the duration of the swim that were positive, proactive, and directed at continued movement and momentum towards the finishing chute.

Choosing a Focal Point

With my mind in a better frame to focus on performing, I knew I needed to implement one last skill—choosing my focal point. One way to think about anxiety is that this experience is simply information offering a choice. You can choose to dive into anxiety and listen to the thoughts, doubts, uncertainty, and fear it conjures up. Doing so typically only increases anxiety, both in mind and body. 

The information anxiety provides is without question relevant—it serves a purpose. Anxiety kicks up the perception that something is being threatened, either physically or psychologically. How we handle this experience makes or breaks what happens next, and in the context of performing, it can fuel or derail outcomes. 

Teaching your athletes to choose a focal point is a mental skill that is quite helpful in many scenarios when training and racing. In the context of swimming, I knew I could choose the focal point of anxiety by fixating and focusing on it, or I could drive my focus externally to what I could see in my surroundings. I knew my vision would be partially compromised once in the water, but with the beauty of the Boulder mountains in view, I chose my focal point of breathing on my left side and visually spotting, albeit briefly, the peaks of the front range within view. 

Paired with instructional and motivational self-talk, this strategy worked well to quell my pre-race swim anxiety.

Wrapping it Up

Performance anxiety is common for athletes of all ability levels, no matter if they have spent time competing or not. Teaching your athletes to utilize instructional and motivational self-talk, along with choosing a focal point, are key strategies for counter-balancing anxiety (especially as it relates to swim anxiety for triathletes). 

But yet maybe the best advice of all—don’t wait for race day to attempt your first open water swim.

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How to Prevent The Female Athlete Triad as a Coach

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During the 1970s, researchers began to notice a higher-than-expected frequency of amenorrhea (absence of normal menstrual cycles) in ballet dancers, and that in those women there was a very high likelihood of suffering from stress fractures in the feet and lower legs.

At around the same time (with the passage of Title IX), more and more women began to participate in sports, and similar patterns began to be seen among those who performed at the highest levels. In other words, more and more female athletes who developed amenorrhea had a tendency to sustain stress fractures.

What is the Female Athlete Triad?

It was only a matter of time before a syndrome was identified that linked disordered eating with the absence of menstruation and the development of stress fractures. It was named the female athlete triad, and the triad can be conceptually visualized by the figure below that illustrates schematically how the interplay between energy availability (affected by disordered eating), hormonal processes (disrupting menstrual cycles), and bone mineral density (leading to stress fractures) are all on a spectrum.

female athlete triad explained

At its worst, women who are training hard may be sacrificing good eating habits, or affected by a distorted body image that leads them to develop a true eating disorder. With continued exertion in an underfed state, hormonal processes required for regular menstruation are interrupted. These same hormonal processes are required for healthy bone formation, and in their absence, bone mineral density begins to deteriorate leading to stress fractures.

Detecting the Onset of Symptoms

Fortunately,
the effects of the female athlete triad are, for the most part, reversible, but
the best way to manage them is to detect the onset of symptoms early to
intervene and prevent the development of injuries in the first place. Coaches
can have an important role both in precipitating some of the habits that can
lead to the triad, but also in the early detection of and intervention in the
progression of the triad by knowing what to look for and by being diligent with
their female athletes.

With respect to precipitating habits that can lead to the triad, coaches should recognize the outsized impact they may have on their female athletes by over-emphasizing weight loss. Women are subject to untold amounts of societal pressures related to their weight and appearance, and well-meaning coaches can compound this and may have the unintended effect of promoting dieting or dietary restriction—the two most common precursors to disordered eating.

Promoting healthy nutrition and overall performance over weight loss is the preferred means to discuss diet with female athletes. While some coaches may have difficulty de-emphasizing weight loss, it’s important they remember that nothing is more important than their athlete’s physical and mental well-being. Healthy nutrition will accomplish both of those ends.

Because
disordered eating is the common starting point for the triad, it’s the single
best reason for a coach to intervene early in order to prevent the more serious
effects of this relative energy deficiency.

Please note, disordered eating is NOT the same as a true eating disorder. While both exist on a spectrum, disordered eating is merely unhealthy eating in that the nutritional needs are not met by the diet of the athlete. A true eating disorder encompasses much more than this, including elements of distorted body image and true manifestations of mental illness.

Challenges for Coaches

There
are several challenges for coaches to overcome in order to identify the signs
of disordered eating in their female athletes:

Women who embody many of the habits and
characteristics of successful athletes share a lot in common with women who are
most at risk for disordered eating. They tend to put in long hours of training
and they are very compliant with their coaches’ plans for them.Female athletes who are most at risk for
disordered eating tend to be found in sports that emphasize thinness or
leanness. Consequently, coaches may not notice these women as being unwell
because they fit the stereotype of athletes in their sport.Finally, the firmly entrenched notion
that leanness and thinness are correlated with improved performance is
difficult to overcome and so coaches may not see their athletes as underfed.

For
coaches to get past these biases they must be hyper-vigilant and pay attention
to some subtle signs of poor nutrition:

Physical signs and symptoms include significant weight loss, frequent complaints of dehydration, muscle cramps, weakness, and fatigue.

Psychological signs include complaining of feeling fat despite being thin, anxiety and/or depression, difficulty concentrating, and preoccupation with weight and eating.

It
should be noted that the mere presence of any one of these signs or symptoms is
not enough to make the diagnosis of disordered eating, but should serve to at
least raise awareness of the possibility for the coach.

Later signs of disordered eating include amenorrhea and eventually, stress fractures. It’s difficult for a coach to know their athlete’s menstrual health, and this is likely not something many coaches would feel comfortable asking about.

However, if a coach is concerned about their athlete and believes that they may be at risk for the triad, knowing if they are still having periods is very important. Amenorrhea has for too long been considered ‘normal’ amongst female athletes, and it’s important that this attitude shift.

Addressing the Issue

For
a coach who is worried, a suggested approach might sound like: “I understand
there is a fine balance between performance and weight, but there are some
really clear signs when that the balance is off. Missing your period is one of
those clear signs. If this is happening or begins to happen, we need to address
it as soon as possible. I need to know this as a coach because it is indicating
to me that you are not fueling adequately and therefore not going to be able to
train optimally, and secondly, that you are putting yourself at risk of injury.”

If an athlete is identified with amenorrhea, a frank discussion with her is paramount with an emphasis on the need to get back to a healthy state. A focus on a restoration of energy balance through improved nutrition is almost always adequate to reverse the menstrual irregularities, and over time, any deficits in bone mineral density.

However, women with disordered eating, especially those at the end of the spectrum closest to true eating disorders, may refuse to recognize they have a problem and will not make the necessary changes to improve their health. Worse, they might continue their behaviors while paying lip service to making changes.

These
latter cases should be strongly encouraged to seek help from a healthcare
professional who specializes in the management of these patients. For less
seriously affected women, a registered dietician may be helpful to develop an
acceptable plan to restore an appropriate energy balance for their athlete.

Any
female athlete who sustains a stress fracture should be encouraged to see their
physician for a comprehensive evaluation of their menstrual health since this
often is a sign of the female athlete triad.

It’s important to note that in 2014 the International Olympic Committee issued a consensus statement Beyond the Female Athlete Triad—Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). This statement was an effort to update the science on the triad, but also to recognize that a similar syndrome had been purported to exist in male athletes. The redefinition of the female athlete triad to RED-S was met with considerable scorn in the sports medicine community and remains a topic of significant controversy.

Female Athlete Triad Versus RED-S

While it’s true that a significantly smaller number of male athletes do suffer from disordered eating, there are several problems with redefining the triad to RED-S:

While there are decades of research and
a multitude of studies on the female athlete triad, there is a scarcity of
research on any such syndrome in men. This is because the number of men
afflicted remains so small as to remain unknown.Renaming the female athlete triad shifts
the focus of this entity towards men and away from women in the minds of many
who study this problem. This, in their minds, is wholly inappropriate given how
this so disproportionately affects female athletes.Finally, another important distinction
between men and women is the absence of menstruation in men. Consequently men
are protected from the effects of disordered eating to some degree. While they
may lose weight and suffer many of the same physical and psychological effects,
they do not need to ‘fuel’ ovulation and menstruation. In the absence of
disruption of these hormonal processes they do not suffer the loss in bone
mineral density and stress fractures that women do.

For this reason, coaches should be much more concerned about their female athletes than their male athletes with regard to the presence of disordered eating and all its associated effects.

In
summary, female endurance athletes are at significant risk for disordered
eating because of the nature of the sports that they participate in. Coaches
need to be careful to de-emphasize weight loss when talking to women and
instead highlight overall healthy nutrition as an important contributor to
overall health and performance. Coaches should also be vigilant for signs of
the female athlete triad and encourage female athletes with signs of it to seek
an evaluation by a health professional.

I am deeply indebted to Kelly Phuah and Lucy Brash for their assistance in reviewing and editing this article prior to submission. In addition, I consulted the following manuscripts in the preparation of this article:

1. The Female Athlete Triad. Med Sci Sport Exerc. 2007;39(10):1867-1882. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e318149f111

2. Matzkin E, Curry EJ, Whitlock K. Female Athlete Triad. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2015;23(7):424-432. doi:10.5435/JAAOS-D-14-00168

3. NCAA Coaches Handbook Managing the Female Athlete Triad. Accessed June 17, 2019.

4. Souza MJ De, Williams NI, Nattiv A, et al. Misunderstanding the Female Athlete Triad: Refuting the IOC Consensus Statement on Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). Br J Sports Med. 2014;48(20):1461-1465. doi:10.1136/BJSPORTS-2014-093958

5. Mountjoy M, Sundgot-Borgen J, Burke L, et al. The IOC consensus statement: beyond the Female Athlete Triad—Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). Br J Sports Med. 2014;48(7):491-497. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2014-093502

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