Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (REDS) – Part 1

A few weeks ago, Kim shared a video on Facebook on the topic of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (REDS).

‘Over-training’ is a well known term among athletes, and is characterised by a lack of balance between the training load and ability to recover from training.  Recovery is something that varies from person to person, and is affected by all stresses an individual endures, not just time on the bike.  For most people, and certainly all of the athletes I work with, that includes work, study, family, and the myriad other commitments people have.  It can also extend to emotional stress to the extent that in times where this is increased it is often necessary to dial back the training to ensure things remain in balance on a physical level.

Over-training is not REDS.  The term REDS has evolved from a condition that centres on eating disorder or dysfunctional eating, hormonal imbalances, and bone health (resulting in osteoporosis).  In women, a key symptom related to hormonal imbalance can be significant changes to (or loss of) the monthly menstrual cycle.  In 1986 the condition was coined ‘Female Athlete Triad’, which had the unfortunate consequence of suggesting it was something that doesn’t affect males.

The speech in the video clarifies the latest understanding of the impact of energy imbalance among male and female athletes.  It generated a bit of discussion, both on and off-line, and seemed to particularly strike a chord among males who recognised themselves in some of the behaviours and symptoms described.

One person in particular understood the slippery slope , the consequences, and recovery better than anyone else who got in touch.  Over the next three weeks Johnny van Leeuwen, of Dunedin, will share his story through the Cowbell blog in order to raise awareness of the realities of the condition in the hopes that his experience will help to prevent others from making the same mistakes he did.  Johnny isn’t a Cowbell rider (I’m not the coach he mentions) but I agree that greater awareness can only be a good thing.  Just like it’s not only women who are affected, it’s also not only professional athletes who are affected.  Anyone involved in competitive sport (especially endurance sport) has the potential to take risks that can be damaging to their health.

Below is part 1 of Johnny’s story.  Many thanks for sharing so openly.


Is the old saying you are what you eat true?  Do we as athletes need to look like the pro’s we see on TV and are we influenced by the stories we hear and see in the media? Is the only way you can ever achieve your goals of success to dedicate your life to do so?

Well, I am living proof of what happens when it can all go wrong and when we do listen to those external factors and judge our life and performance on what others say you should be doing when in reality they are exactly what you should not be focusing on.

I am Johnny van Leeuwen, 35 years old and a passionate MTB cyclist.


Over the next few weeks I am going to share a series of blogs of the very personal battle of my life over the past 5 years in the hope that I can educate and bring awareness to others about the dangers of pushing yourself too far beyond the limit. But first I want to declare I am not a scientist, nor a doctor or any kind of expert. Just a man with a bike, a goal in his mind to succeed in sport. I am not a pro athlete. I do not get paid to ride and in fact I barely have any sponsorship of any kind at all. I wouldn’t call myself a weekend warrior but more of an elite level of MTB Endurance within NZ.

My story starts 5 years ago when I turned 30. I had my 30th birthday combined honeymoon in the Philippines. At the time I was always sick with ongoing colds or something wrong with me. I ran my own painting/decorating business in Dunedin, Had multiple property investments on my hands and was running development projects for others. It’s fair to say I was over worked, fat and unhealthy albeit making money.

On the trip to the Philippines my mother in law took a picture of me sitting on the beach half drunk and sun burnt. I remember looking at this photo when I returned home and it shocked me how fat and unhealthy I looked. After a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself I decided I’m 30 years old now, unhappy and need a change.


A few months later I sold my business, got rid of the developments I was running and decided to focus solely on my property investments and health.

My wife was also up for a change and she had entered herself into a local race called the Mototapu. I had heard of it before but never thought I could do it or bother doing it for that matter. A few weeks before the race her friend who she was doing it with pulled out and offered me the free entry. Now, I hadn’t been in a race for 10 years and had only 3 weeks prep but thought hey why the hell not.

In my late teens and early twenties I represented NZ in Ice Hockey. I traveled and played at the high end of the sport and in my off season I raced MTB races, multi sport events and yes dare I say it “bloody roadie” races before I had a major injury that put all of it to a screaming halt.


If you’ve ever met me I am not a small guy at 195cm in height, big feet and usually an ego as large as my thighs!

At the time of Mototapu I weighed in at 112kgs and that’s not muscle people but well-earned pies and beers from 10 years of being a ‘tradie’. I completed the race in a respectable time of around 2:53, which was pretty good for a first off event. This sparked my enthusiasm to become a MTB racer again.

I pretty much knew nothing about how to train for biking but my first port of call was to lose that belly. Dieting was never my thing so many hours of just riding saw me drop 10kgs rather quickly and after riding with a few local riders from our local bike shop I found they had one thing in common. They all had a coach. So then I decided that I needed a coach too and I found one.

My new coach had just completed his qualifications, had 20 years of racing experience and we got on well so it was a perfect match.

Straight into it we went with the goal of improving in the next season.

Goal year 1 – Race everything and anything

Season one went well and I managed to get myself close to the top ten on a few occasions, my life and health was on the improve.

Goal season 2 – Better than last year

Of course season 2 had to be better than last year because what’s the point in living backward right?? I did well and got onto the podium a few times, placed top ten in most races but still was a mile off the winner, which was all I really cared about.

Goal season 3 – Podium

Like the previous year I must be better because that would be embarrassing to be worse and who could do all that training & not win right?

Lets say things didn’t go as well as I hoped. I had dropped by then to around 92-94kgs still 195cm tall and feet hadn’t got any smaller ether!

Every one who I was racing at the top end had one thing in common. They were all half my size & looked like they had veins popping everywhere and hadn’t been fed in weeks. They looked like what I saw in the Tour de France on TV, legs with chicken wings but god they could fly!

So, ok then, I thought…… I need to look like them it is. Chris Froome watch out! Johnny is coming to season 4 and taking over the MTB world in the south island.



Watching Tour de France and the World cup MTB races I found myself trying to compare myself to the riders. I found the biggest beast on a MTB in the world who is still shorter than me but goes by the name of 2012 Olympic world Champion Jaroslav Kulhavy, weighing in at 76 -79kgs at 187cm.

He was my best bet so I set my eyes on my own Duckworth-Lewis calculation of 86kgs.

Knowing very little on how to lose the weight properly I figured its simple.  Train more eat less…. Boom you’re in for a win!

Goal season 4 – Lose the fat and go fast

I had 6 months to lose the beef from 94kgs before my first target race of October 2014 the Hard Labour weekend MTB race in Twizel, which I had placed 3rd the year before.

I trained like nothing before – 20-30hrs just on the bike some weeks and ate like a monk. I started to see some improvement but then it just stopped. I started to lie to my coach as he had set only half the hours for me but I did more because I believed the more you do the better you become.

I learnt about ‘Calories in Calories out’. Basic system works like this…Burn more calories than you eat. So I signed myself up to an app called MY FITNESS PAL. It taught me heaps on what was in my foods and most importantly what calories were and portion sizes. I kept to a basic food plan of eating shit loads of low calorie food (not focusing on the nutrient factor at all!)

Breakfast is my favorite thing in the world but shit its high in Calories. Corn flakes and water it was then. Lowest calorie food I could find along side light peaches. I would skip lunch as I would be out riding then, post ride I would eat an apple and fill myself with coffee until dinner time. Tea consisted of roast pumpkin and diet gravy with a side of veges before a few more bowls of cornflakes and water before bed.

My weight went down fast. I lost 5kgs in 3months to now be 88kgs but as I lost the weight so did I lose my mind!!!!!


Everyone around me was shocked how quickly I dropped the weight. Concerns were raised but I ignored them as I felt they didn’t understand what it was all about and I saw it as just being dedicated.

I started to notice that I was always grumpy, yelling at the dog or the cat for just living. My wife noticed it too and raised her concerns about my attitude and my behavior towards food. I was always so tired and grumpy but to me in my head that was dedication and he who is the most dedicated will win.


I always thought of myself as a horny bastard but all of sudden it just stopped. I didn’t really care about it anymore and figured I must just be too tired – so hey. Day to day things became harder to deal with and I couldn’t make my mind up on any thing. Procrastination had kicked in with work and other commitments suffered due to this.

Labour weekend had approached and the weeks leading into it sleep had become less and less. The night before the race I had maybe 2 hours then I was up, cornflakes in, pre-race gel and we were ready to go.


I won the race by over 5mins, took the course record at the time and it felt easy. The next day my wife and I raced the Dean’s Bank 10hr as a team of two. I had thoughts of doing 12 hour races at some stage in the future so I started the race with me doing 6 hours straight with my wife completing the last 4 hours. It was awesome fun and we pushed through the day with no issues.

Two weeks later full of confidence I entered my hometown race the Coastal classic – 52km of fire roads and forest.

Starting the race I just chilled and stayed with the lead bunch of about 10. I dug deep and dropped the pack after 10km. I was pushing hard to the end when with about 5km to go and a huge lead my life changed forever!

Like someone switching a light off I just about came to a complete halt. Nothing made sense; body felt sore but ok, breathing was fine but just couldn’t make any sense of what was going on. I was soon caught by a young guy, on the last small climb before the down hill finish to the end. I had never met this rider before but he was on fire. I tried so hard to make conversation with him and stick on his tail but nothing… he rode off in the distance and my thoughts then focused on the down hill.

I took off like a cut cat, missed the first corner and rode into a bush. Unusual I thought, the trail seemed to be moving all over the show, rocks seemed to jump at me and so my bike took the brunt of a few of them to brake my frame. I carried on god knows how and just about caught the leader. I finished just a few seconds behind him but knew my second place meant shit to me. My health or should I say dedication was killing me.

I told everyone the reason I lost was because I broke my frame but what actually happened was I was beaten fair and square but albeit my body was now breaking down and starting to show signs of weakness.

Join me next week as I discuss how it all went so completely wrong and so fast to the point of just about no return and forever leaving me with permanent heath issues.

If you are an athlete and train hard you need to read this as it impacts you a lot more than you may think.

Signs of over training and poor diet causes affecting REDS in Male and Female athletes:

# Rapid weight loss
# Low body fat percentage
# Feeling exhausted
# Mental state and mood
# Diet changes
# Lack of enthusiasm to train
# Slow or no recovery
# Broken sleep
# High resting heart rate
# Always getting sick
# Loss of sex drive
# Night sweats

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