It took a long time for Katie Schofield, one of New Zealand's top track cyclists, to accept she had a problem.

She was constantly battling injury and fatigue, had all sorts of weird things going on with her hormones and gastrointestinal system, and yet still she felt great.

The satisfaction of seeing the number on the scales steadily decreasing compensated for any feelings of exhaustion.

"I was fixated on how I looked over how I was feeling. I was tired, I was exhausted but heck, my skinfold readings were mint so in my mind I was winning," said Schofield, who is competing at this weekend's UCI BikeNZ Classic in Cambridge.

Advertisement

She may have been winning in her mind, but in the velodrome was a different story.

Named as a reserve in the women's sprint team for the 2012 Olympics, Schofield was dropped from the BikeNZ programme in March this year after her progress on the track stalled. It proved the catalyst to some deep soul-searching and some honest conversations with herself about her health.

"I was fixated and far too serious on one area and I lost sight of the bigger picture. In the end it back-fired and took me down," she said.

Despite being a qualified nutritionist and having a broad knowledge of the importance of good nutrition for optimal performance, Schofield was not following her own teachings and was under-fuelling her body for her required energy output.

Her obsession with being lean had clouded her better judgment and the impact of that obsession reached far beyond her skinfold readings.

Schofield was suffering from a surprisingly common but rarely talked about condition affecting female athletes - Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, or RED-S.

Formerly known as the female athlete triad, the syndrome is the collective term for the raft of health complications, including irregular menstrual cycles, low iron levels and poor bone health, that stem from disordered eating or simply not providing the body with enough fuel for its energy output.

Complicating matters is that to get on top of the physical symptoms, athletes need to sometimes first deal with the psychological causes. For Schofield, this meant acknowledging her irrational thoughts around food, but she believes she is slowly getting on top of things.

Advertisement

"There was one person that helped me change my mindset on how to get healthy, because basically what I was doing was not working. He said if I want to get fast on the bike and want to get back in the team, I've got to change what I'm doing," she said.

"There's still some definite improvements to make and I'm still dealing with it day to day but I feel like I am making some progress and I'm making small steps to get on top of it.

"I guess the longer you're in that state the longer it's going to take to come out of it."

To aid her recovery, Schofield made the brave decision to speak openly about her health battle, in doing so lifting the lid on a topic few athletes have been willing to publicly discuss. In a raw and honest blog on her personal website, the 30-year-old last week documented her struggle with RED-S.

"I had been sitting on it for quite a while whether to put it on my blog or not, and just decided why not? It's an important issue and it's something that is not really talked about a lot."

Dane Baker, one of New Zealand's leading sports dietitians, said the female athlete triad and RED-S are very much under-reported conditions and research in this area is still only just scratching the surface.

He said research has shown high performance athletes by their very nature are perfectionists, and this can sometimes spill over into the pursuit of physical perfection.

"It's something that we have to keep in mind all the time. Especially because there is a lot of evidence with sports where their physiques are on show a lot like gymnasts, swimmers and I guess these days with netballers as well," said Baker.

"Another very important factor can be those around the athlete. For example, a coach that puts a lot of pressure on an athlete for an unrealistic body composition. When this pressure is combined without the support or input from an experienced sports dietitian, it can be a catalyst for low energy availability and the health consequences that go with that."

Now Schofield has got to the bottom of her health problems and seen small but noticeable improvements in her performance and energy levels, she is excited about what her body "with a wee bit more padding" is capable of.

"I kind of plateaued for the past two years and I was getting really frustrated about that and now I'm seeing some small improvements on the bike it's actually really exciting."

• Read Katie's full blog at katieschofield.co.nz