Sport and our very basic fight for survival

Former Olympian Guin Batten believes an academic study that used elite rowers and prehistoric women to draw their conclusions, chose the wrong groups for comparison. Here she explains why

A group of academics from Cambridge last week published in the journal of Science Advances the results of their study into the bone strength of Neolithic women and members of the Cambridge Boat Race crews. Straight away it begged the question: why would we even try to compare ourselves with prehistoric women?

Anyway, moving quickly on, they found that the rowers had similar leg strength to their sisters of long ago, but were 30 per cent weaker in the arms.

I read the article, sitting at my very inactive desk. It talked about the ‘grinding of grain for five hours a day’. I couldn’t help but think: rowers don’t use their arms, they use their legs and back.

As an Olympic rower I spent five hours a day for 10 years training to go fast over 2,000 metres; in that time my ‘guns’ (arms) only really looked good in photos. To emphasis the point, we called the bench press part of our gym work-outs our ‘beach’ weights repertoire.

If Dr Jay Stock and the rest of his research team need to compare like with like then perhaps they should be measuring the bones of the stunningly tough women racing now in the Volvo Ocean Race. The likes of Annie Lush and Liz Wardley are hand-grinding and lumping the ‘stack’ (about 200 kilograms of sail) across the deck for 12 hours a day for 20 days at a time. These professional sailors from the Magenta Project must be the closest thing we have in sport to the ‘hard physical labour’ of the pre-industrial era.

Incidentally, the Volvo Ocean Race is compelling viewing. The next leg from Cape Town into the southern ocean is going to be big, cold and fast. The crews will be depending on the raw physicality of the women (and guys) to stay safe and alive.

Unlike prehistoric women, Olympic and Paralympic sport is very rarely about survival, yet adventure endurance sport is. In 2016, I led a five-woman crew to row the North Atlantic Ocean the wrong way, from New York to Falmouth. The five of us did it in 49 days and nailed a few Guinness World Records along the way, including becoming the first British women to do the route, some 50 years after Chay Blyth and John Ridgeway had done it in 91days.

What amazed me was the ability of our bodies to adapt to the demands of the row. After all, we were rowing two hours on, two hours off each day. I had based our caloric intake of 4,000 calories a day on the minimum amount the winning male crew had been eating on the 2015 Talisker Race, the trade-wind route from La Gomera to Antigua. I had mistakenly assumed that women have some sort of protection chemistry, as many of the female ocean crews look well-nourished at the end of their rows.

Well, I was wrong. When women get to the edge of starvation, or do extreme physical stuff, I think there is very little difference between the sexes.

But over the 49 days I went from the second heaviest to the lightest; between the five of us we lost 50 kilograms (the equivalent of a small child), and in that time we changed our energy chemistry. Our bodies had totally left the world of Olympic sport and entered the beginnings of survival, perhaps closer to the physical life of prehistoric women.

The change in our chemistry was stark: it was as if we left New York as a petrol engine and by the time we arrive in Falmouth we were running on diesel. We had triggered a mechanism that protects protein of the heart and allows the body to use fat at the predominant fuel, even to power the brain. Olympic endurance athletes never trigger this; they are the thoroughbreds of the sports world.

It was only when I got back to the UK, and back at my desk, that I realised the extent of the change in chemistry: my eyesight started to deteriorate rapidly. It got so bad I had to sign myself off work. It turned out that the repeated two-hour sessions of rowing spread throughout the day had meant that I had stopped needing to produce insulin to control my blood sugar levels. The six weeks it took to adapt back into ‘normal’ life was harder on my body than adaption into the row. The research papers indicated it was similar to re-feeding in anorexia.

(By the by, there was one unexplained effect of rowing an ocean, though sadly it only lasted for two weeks: we couldn’t get drunk, and it didn’t matter how much we drank, we failed to wake up with hangovers.)

I like to think that our ability to ‘shape-shift’ and adapt our chemistry is something we still have in common with our prehistoric sisters. My shout-out to Dr Stock and his team is to come and scan the bones of the adventure/endurance athletes from ocean sailing and rowing. You will be amazed at the adaptability of the body to the demands of life, especially when your day-to-day survival is dependent on your physicality.

To learn more about Guin Batten’s Ocean Row, go to:


Article by Guin Batten. Guin’s latest articles.

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Women’s Sport Trust want to thank our partner Getty Images for some of the imagery of women in sport used on this site. Click here to view the editorial curation featuring the world’s top sportswomen in action and here to learn more about our partnership with Getty Images.

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