To simply state that Rachel Cliff is one of Canada’s top female distance runners does not do justice to her incredible career this far. Currently the second-fastest Canadian marathoner with a blistering time of 2:26.56, the Vancouver resident and BC Endurance Project team member is training with her sights on the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.
Competing on the international stage is not something new for Rachel. She was a 2017 and 2019 IAAF World Championship team member where she competed in the 10,000m and 5,000m respectively. She won bronze at the 2019 PanAm games in the 10,000m and has some incredible personal best times, including:
So yeah, she’s fast.
Rachel has been competing since she was just 16 years old. Her stats, however, only tell part of the story. Like all athletes, Rachel has had many trials to overcome throughout her career. One of these difficulties has been with relative energy deficiency syndrome (RED-S).
Rachel’s Experience With RED-S
Rachel has experienced RED-S throughout her years as an athlete. She's also noticed it in her fellow teammates. Having learned from those experiences, she has continued to be competitive throughout her long career, whereas others have been forced into early retirement.
“Overall, I think the fact I’ve been able to avoid prolonged years of RED-S is why I’ve been able to stay in the sport for so long. I credit this to several coaches and mentors I’ve had, and currently have, who have taught me the importance of rest and adequate fueling. That said, I’ve had periods where I experienced RED-S”
Rachel’s first experience with RED-S between 2010 and 2012 flew largely under her radar. Information about the condition wasn’t necessarily common knowledge at the time, and it wasn’t until later that she suspected that RED-S was what she had been experiencing.
RED-S Symptoms Are Different For Everyone
One of the classic symptoms of RED-S in women is the loss of their menstrual cycle. Rachel, however, was still getting a period, so she didn’t quite realize what her body was going through.
“The unfortunate reality is that in the short-term performance may actually improve, but eventually adverse effects seem to inevitably catch up. To further complicate matters, the symptoms can look different for everyone and aren’t always obvious initially.” she explains. “For me, the symptoms were more muddled: my periods were present, but light and scattered. I was constantly falling ill, I felt weak and low energy, and my training and racing times were going backwards.”
No matter how hard she pushed herself, her training was having the opposite effect on her performance. Her times were getting slower, and she was becoming discouraged.
Knowing something needed to change, Rachel switched coaches to one that better managed her personal training load. She added strength training to her routine, and most importantly, she was encouraged to eat more. No longer stressing about food, Rachel finally broke 16 minutes in the 5k in 2014 and hasn’t looked back.
Proper Fueling is Key
Rachel’s biggest lesson from her time dealing with RED-S is that adequate fuel is not just critical for one competition, but longevity and successful performances throughout your entire season and career.
Now, she considers fueling as another aspect of her training, and does her best to make sure that she is eating to match her needs. It isn’t always easy, but the pay-off is huge.
“When I moved up to the marathon and started training at altitude I found adequate fueling to be a real challenge – despite my best efforts,” she explains. “Through the years I learnt to trust my natural appetite, but since marathon training I’ve had to eat more than I think I need.”
She says athletes shouldn’t be afraid to break out of their normal eating habits in order to give their bodies what they need. She did it when she started racing marathons, and it has been a major component to her success.
Education is Key
Rachel’s biggest challenge with RED-S occurred at a time when RED-S and overtraining weren’t terms you heard much about. She says it’s important that coaches, athletes, and parents are all educated on RED-S and have the right tools to monitor it so that they can avoid the pitfalls that might bring an early end to a season or career.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about RED-S, such as it only affects women, that it’s a binary “yes” or “no” issue, or that athletes who suffer from it are drastically trying to cut calories. The reality is we’re often only talking about a shortage of 300 calories a day, and the signs can be subtle,” she says. “Tools and questionnaires like ALPHA can hopefully lessen the stigma surrounding RED-S and give athletes a tool to identify their current risk in the initial stages.”
The more we talk about RED-S and put time, research, and effort into the problem, fewer and fewer athletes will have to struggle with the condition.
Rachel’s RED-S Tips
Rachel knows first-hand how difficult it can be to eat enough calories to support your energy needs, particularly after a hard session when you’re tired and might not have the stomach for a big meal. She’s given three tips on what works well for her to meet her caloric needs with relative ease:
Smoothies are your friend! It’s a lot easier to stomach liquid calories when you're tired, and you can pack a lot of nutrients and calories into a smoothie. When training for Berlin [the Berlin Marathon] I’d often drink one while making my post-workout lunch.
Being sure to prioritize protein at meals in addition to carbs.
Avoid big dips in energy balance, snack early, snack often! Especially after a workout!
Beyond minding your nutrition, Rachel says that using tools like ALPHA can help all athletes monitor their progress and catch the signs and symptoms of RED-S before they have a major impact on their season.
“One striking pattern I’ve noticed, both in myself and fellow runners, is how unsustainable being in a RED-S state is,” she says. “ALPHA would be a questionnaire I could use periodically through the year to check if I’m at risk of being in a RED-S state. It would be another tool in the toolbox.”
Written by Julie Hambleton