High school athletes and the female athlete triad

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    This is a topic that should be very important to anyone who knows or works with high school athletes. I know there are at least a couple of people here who are involved with high school track and field and/or cross-country, so I thought this would be a topic worth posting on. Even if you're not directly involved, though, you can make a big difference in a girl's life if you recognize the symptoms in someone and discuss those symptoms, either directly with them or with someone they respect and will listen to.

    In yesterday's Journal Sentinel, there was a stunning article about a study related to this topic done in Milwaukee. Some numbers from the article show the significance of this problem. 17% of the girls in the study had low bone mineral density, a precursor to osteoporosis, when a normally healthy athlete should actually have higher than average density due to the physiological responses to exercise. 19% had suffered stress fractures, note the close relation between those two numbers. 55% of the girls in the study were running a calorie deficit, burning more calories than they were eating. The average calorie deficit was a whopping 475 calories per day! 33% suffered amenorrhea and another study referenced found that 24% of coaches thought this condition was normal for female athletes.

    While these numbers were shocking to me when I first read them, this isn't all that surprising when I let it sink in, considering the diet craze sweeping through our society. High schoolers especially have to realize that dieting and competitive sports don't mix well. You have to fuel your training or your training and competitions will suffer. A short term calorie deficit isn't the end of the world but a prolonged one will negatively affect both your health and your running performances.

    Put all these things together and we have a serious problem here. These numbers suggest that nearly every girls team at nearly every school should be expected to have at least one athlete, often more, dealing with serious health issues. Yes, I know, you can't just look at these girls and know which ones are in need of help and which ones are healthy athletes. However, if you are around these athletes, you can do two things. First, you can watch for warning signs. We all know what they are, I shouldn't have to list them but I can if someone wants to know what to look for. Second, if you are a parent or a coach, you can constantly remind your athletes of the importance of a good, healthy diet. This is a good idea for both the boys and the girls. Problems seem to be more prevalent with the girls but they exist with the boys also. Remind your athletes every chance you get how important it is for athletes to fuel themselves. Keep reminding them that food is fuel and it is essential for all athletes to adequately fuel themselves. Tell them that rapid or extreme weight loss isn't going to help their performances, that gradual weight loss as a result of a healthy diet and hard training is the kind of weight loss that improves performance.

    High school sports can be a great thing. It teaches the athletes many lessons that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives and it should teach them how to live a healthy lifestyle. However, these athletes need proper guidance. They need to know what is healthy and what is not. In my mind, one of the most important things a high school coach can teach his or her athletes is sportsmanship and teamwork. However, even before that, health and fitness should be the number one lesson. Let's make sure we don't let our athletes down. Let's make sure they learn the lessons needed to live a healthy lifestyle, for now and for the rest of their lives.

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