Say what? What the heck is it? Do I even need to know about it?

If you’re a physically active person, then yes! It is super important. 

RED-S stands for Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. 

As the name suggests, it means that the amount of fuel your body is taking in is less than what your body needs to perform in your sport (and to live and thrive psychologically, physiologically and hormonally). Under-fuelling is so common in women in general, but particularly in female athletes. And when you add actually having a growing body as an adolescent/teen to this mix, then you’ve got the scene set for massive underfuelling as growth is very expensive in terms of the fuel you need. 

RED-S tends to be more common in sports in which leanness or lightness is seen as advantageous. This can include (but is not limited to); gymnastics, dancing, distance running, body-building and combat sports. Over recent years I have seen a fair few CrossFit athletes who are trying to limit calories and specifically, carbohydrates, in an attempt to get leaner, even though CrossFit is a highly glycolytic sport requiring carbohydrate to fuel anaerobic efforts. This restriction can mean that if you look at energy in v’s energy out like a bank account, there are more withdrawals from that account than there are deposits and so you are ‘overdrawn’. 

What are the effects of being ‘overdrawn’ in the accounting system of your body? It can show up sneakily and so slowly in some cases that you barely notice it. Or there may be more obvious signs. These may include:

  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Poor recovery from training sessions
  • Getting injured more often
  • Not seeing gains/performance benefits from your training 
  • Moodiness
  • Missed period
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Picking up viral infections
  • Poor sleep
  • weight loss

Notice that weight loss is waaay down on this list? It’s so common to see people say, “Well, I haven’t lost weight, so I must be eating enough”. Your body is so clever at adapting to low energy availability that a loss on the scale is not an accurate indicator of sufficient energy going in. 

Sometimes the energy deficit might be unintentional. As an active person, you might think you’re consuming enough and you’re not deliberately trying to eat less, but it is just not enough to support the demands. Other times, the energy deficit can be intentional. Unfortunately what I see often is people trying to stick to extremely unrealistic and unhealthy calorie targets on tracking apps; this falls into the category of kind of intentional, but with misguided advice from an app that does not take into account your personal situation. 

As someone who has personally participated and competed in many sports, including; martial arts, cross-country running, triathlon, trail running, surfing, CrossFit, body-building and yoga (various kinds) I am able to address the underlying factors present in RED-S with knowledge of your sport. It is really important to address RED-S in a preventative way and with the help of a registered dietitian as well as your GP.