When two-time U23 cyclocross world champion Evie Richards looks back through diary entries from the last five years, there’s a recurring theme: her weight. As the talented British rider revealed earlier this year in an honest Instagram post, an obsession with her weight ‘saturated’ her brain, leading her to under-fuel and overtrain for most of her professional career, losing her period as a result.
Thankfully, Evie sought help in sports and eating disorder specialist Renee McGregor and was diagnosed with RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport). "RED-S is when there is not sufficient energy in the system to meet the demands of the 'work' by the body, where work is the combination of training, general movement and all the biological processes within the body," explains McGregor. "The body will always prioritise movement, and so when there is low energy availability, the body will go into preservation mode and start closing down biological functions.
"In women the menstrual function is usually one of the first systems to be impacted. Periods can become lighter, more erratic and then eventually stop all together. In men, the same process occurs; a low testosterone level will be indicated by morning erectile function dropping to less than five a week."
The condition is prevalent not only in elite athletes but amateur athletes, too. "While many people believe that RED-S only affects those that are professional or elite level, it is actually a big problem in anyone who takes part in regular training," says McGregor. "In my clinic, just over the last three months we have seen an increase in enquiries from 25 a week to 40 a week, and this is a mix of all level athletes."
With the support of Renee and her psychologist, Evie has now recovered and her period has returned, and now she is keen to share her story and raise awareness about RED-S. “When I was struggling, it wasn’t talked about and there wasn’t anything to read about it, so I think it’s super important for athletes to share their stories going forwards,” she says.
Where it all began
Growing up, Evie’s whole family had a healthy relationship with food. “We never had weighing scales in the house and it wasn’t something I even thought about in high school,” Evie explains. “I would come home and eat whatever I fancied."
Gradually, this changed as Evie took up cycling in sixth form and began to form her own notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods through a mix of information she had read in women’s magazines and learned in biology lessons.
I remember when I was in sixth form going out for four-hour rides and just eating a pear
Soon she became ‘very particular’ about what she was eating, and by the time she moved to Manchester in September 2015, as part of the GB Academy programme, her focus on food and weight had intensified. “Moving to Manchester is definitely when I started to become more obsessive about food,” Evie explains. “I was living with one of the best girls (riders) in the country, who I was also racing against. I just thought: we’re both training together, being coached by the same coach, so I need to do everything I possibly can to be the best.”
When Evie had her weight recorded by the GB Academy team, this became a tangible benchmark for improvement in her mind. “I now had my skin folds number and a number on the scales that I could lower,” she explains. “I’m so competitive that I was almost in competition with myself to lower both numbers. I bought some scales and recorded my weight every single day for the next three years.”
I bought some scales and recorded my weight every single day for the next three years
While in Manchester, Evie’s periods stopped, although this didn’t worry her at the time. “I used to get so poorly with my period it was horrendous, so I was quite pleased not to have one. It was just one less thing to worry about.”
Being surrounded by cyclists with their own eating habits and ideas only increased Evie’s focus on food and weight. “Everyone was watching what they were eating, so it wasn’t really a ‘normal’ environment. Other riders were doing fasted rides, so I started doing that too. I cut out a lot of food groups, which I’d created in my head, such as any white food. I wouldn’t eat anything with sugar in it, including a lot of fruit, and I remember I was always hungry. Even going to bed, all that I could think about was what I was going to eat in the morning. Food saturated so much of my thinking state.”
It also led to anxiety around social eating. “Going out for meals with my parents would put me under so much stress – the thought of eating somewhere where I couldn’t control what I ate. So it was never an enjoyable evening,” Evie explains.
I remember in Manchester lying on the landing so many times because I was too exhausted to walk up the stairs
Alongside under-fuelling, Evie was going over and above in training. “I was in a cycle of just doing a bit more, that extra effort, and completely under-fuelling for what I was doing. Under-fuelling and overtraining have always gone hand-in-hand for me,” she explains. “I remember in my first year calling my coach and saying, ‘I don’t want this rest day, I want to train today.’ And I’m still fighting that urge now.”
Although she was enjoying success in races, Evie was exhausted. “I remember in Manchester lying on the landing so many times because I was too exhausted to walk up the stairs, which is just crazy thinking about it now, but I was in this bubble thinking it was normal. Looking through my diary entries, a lot of them say how knackered I was, how I was struggling to turn the pedals, how I was vacant. I was so mentally tired, I don’t think I enjoyed riding then as much as I do now.”
The body will always prioritise movement, and so when there is low energy availability, the body will go into preservation mode and start closing down biological functions.
Steps in the right direction
Meeting a partner outside of cycling in 2018 gave Evie some perspective and set the wheels in motion for her to make changes in her life. “I started going out with a boy who wasn’t into cycling and that’s probably when I realised it was so abnormal that my brain was focused on food the whole time, and that there was another side of life other than that.”
She also listened to The Girl Gains podcast which confirmed her thoughts about her food obsession being unhealthy. “It sounds stupid, but listening to that podcast made me realise it wasn’t normal,” she explains.
The absence of her period, previously considered a bonus, became a lingering worry. “It was always in the back of my mind; I thought it couldn’t be great for your health, a part of your body stopping. So in 2018 I started making little changes to try and help myself. Really small things such as having a piece of cake if it was my birthday – something I hadn’t done for three years. It was such a small thing but it was a hard change.”
Just writing down the foods I was eating and seeing how much food it was on paper made me anxious
Around the same time, Evie bought a book written by sports and eating disorder dietitian Renee McGregor. “After reading it, I felt like I already trusted her and decided, right, I need to get an appointment with her.”
Evie started working with Renee in October 2018 for two months, but despite her best intentions, found the changes very difficult. “It sounds silly, but I was finding it really challenging. Just writing down the foods I was eating and seeing how much food it was on paper made me anxious. So although I wanted to make the change, I was still battling a bit.”
The road to recovery
When a knee injury and resulting surgery in January 2019 provided enforced downtime, it gave Evie the opportunity to focus on her health. “I probably fuelled better than I ever had in that time due to Renee’s support. Looking back, I recovered so quickly from my injury because I was fuelling myself so well. I got my period back and was super happy.”
However, the change was short-lived, as Evie went back to racing sooner than she’d expected to and suddenly found herself anxious about the scrutiny she felt she’d face about her weight and appearance. “As soon as I was back to racing, I was like, ‘No, I can’t do this, I need to lose this weight’ and I lost my period again. It wasn’t even performance-related; it was about what people might say about me in pictures after a race. The worst thing for me after the race was seeing my pictures, I hated it.”
At the end of the 2019 season, and with her off-season finished, Evie was about to resume training when her mum intervened. “She said to me, ‘Evie, you are not getting back on that bike until you get your period again.’ I felt that she was right, so that was it [I committed to making a change]. Shortly after, I got my period back and I started working with Renee again – and I’ve had a menstrual cycle ever since.”
As soon as I was back to racing, I was like, ‘No, I can’t do this, I need to lose this weight’ and I lost my period again
“It probably took me two years to work on getting it back and to feel comfortable enough in myself to put on the weight. For me the main change I made was around my riding. I remember when I was in sixth form going out for four-hour rides and just eating a pear, the boys I would ride with would always be like, ‘Come on Evie just have a gel’ but I was always so stubborn! I always thought I was struggling towards the end of the ride because I was a girl, I even had to get the train home one day because I was so empty, but when I look back now it’s just because I had no energy left! So fuelling my rides during, and recovery straight after, have been the key things to helping me get my period back.”
During this time, alongside seeing Renee, Evie also started working with a psychologist. “He made me realise that people weren’t looking at me and judging me on my weight,” she explains. “This was an assumption I had come up with in my head, and if they were, why did it matter, there will always be people that say unnecessary comments, but it’s not important what these people say, the important thing was to think about what my family and friends thought of me, and what I learned was that weight was never something they associated with me, it’s not what defines me.”
Fuelling my rides during, and recovery straight after, have been the key things to helping me get my period back
Now, Evie’s approach to food has changed completely, leaving her feeling liberated and free from the burden of a food obsession. “Aside from the performance benefits, I’m like a different person, I’m so happy riding, I have so much more energy. I’m back seeing friends, and I feel like I can eat what I want and I don’t feel restricted. I eat cake on my birthday and I bake cookies just because I want to. It doesn’t feel like weight takes up all my time. It’s so nice because I can think of other things now!”