The Stockport AC star has emerged from a 10 year struggle with the effects of an energy deficiency issue to run for GB once again – but her story carries an important message.
Piasecki finished a superb 10th at the recent European Cross Country Championships in Tilburg on her senior debut on the country.
That performance came six years after her last outing at the championships, when she took the U23 title in Budapest in 2012.
There have been plenty of notable race results from the Derbyshire-based athlete in that interim period.
A prodigious teenage talent, Piasecki ran 2:16.6, 4:33.96 and 9:24.61 for 800m, 1500m and 3000m as a 16 year-old, and made her GB debut as an U20 that same year, at the 2006 European cross country championships.
Her track PBs now stand at 2:08.8, 4:18.75, 9:11.28, 15:29.50 and 32:41.59, while on the road she boasts bests of 15:43 for 5k, 32:44 for 10k and 52:53 and 71:36 for 10M and the half marathon.
However, they have come at a price.
The 2015 English 10,000m and British half marathon champion’s troubles with the effects of RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport) first began 10 years ago.
Piasecki is keen to talk about the condition on a personal level, but is also determined to raise awareness of the potential issues other athletes might encounter.
Firstly though, how did that top 10 position on the European stage feel?
Is she happy with her performance in undeniably challenging conditions?
“Yes and no – us athletes are never fully satisfied, but it was great to be back out there,” she exclaims with real feeling. “The whole team did so well, it’s always such a great event, with the crowds and the atmosphere helping to take your mind off the difficult conditions.
The sandy terrain wasn’t too bad the day before when we walked the course, but then it absolutely chucked it down 45 minutes before our race and just sat on top of the sand, which made it very tough to run on.
The course was also a tricky, winding one with no let up. European cross countries are always so different to those in the UK!”
Incredibly, she had only decided to have a crack at qualifying for the championships two weeks earlier.
Returning to racing fitness after a break
Having only returned to full fitness this summer following further injury issues, an extended honeymoon and a demanding PhD, she wasn’t sure she was ready for such a big challenge.
She explains: “I’d found it tough getting back into training, it felt forced for a while and I wasn’t enjoying running in the cold weather.
It didn’t help that I also partially tore my Achilles and didn’t have any race goals for a while.
However, I persisted with cross training, the fitness came back and when I got the job I really wanted in Nottingham my running picked up again.
I was under no pressure to perform, I was happy in my new set up and was setting my own sessions. I decided to do a low key parkrun to ease myself back in, and then entered the Podium 5k in August with no particular target.
It went well, I felt robust and enjoyed the ‘no frills’ aspect of it. The nature of the course suited me too, as I often train over multiple laps of a playing field!”
It went more than just ‘well’ for Piasecki at August’s Podium 5k. The diminutive athlete sped to a superb 15:55, the fifth fastest 5k in the UK this year.
Coaching set up
Her decision to run the Teardrop Lakes course was largely thanks to the advice given to her by her coach, Rob Hawkins.
Mentored by Aldershot, Farnham & District’s somewhat legendary coach, Mick Woods, until last year, she joined forces with Hawkins 18 months ago.
If his name seems familiar, it is because yes, he is the father of that rather well known Scottish marathon running duo, Callum and Derek Hawkins.
While Hawkins senior doesn’t send Piasecki rigid training schedules, he does offer advice on sessions and can oversee her training via the online platform, Training Peaks.
She admits she was very grateful for his clear wisdom and authority when it came to the week following the European Championships.
“I was chomping at the bit to smash a big session, but he told me what I guess I already knew myself – allow the body to recover and save the session for another day,” she explains. “It’s just good to have someone else confirm what you’re already thinking yourself!”
Piasecki is quick to credit Woods too, for the influence he has had on her career: “He was a fabulous coach, I attribute every bit of my success until last year to him. I just needed a change, but I am so thankful to him for everything he did for me.”
Jess Piasecki’s training regime
The former top hockey player has been running at a high level since she first joined Stockport as an U15 athlete, so it might not come as a big surprise that she sets most of her own training herself.
She stresses she never runs more than 65-75 miles a week, with no double days at all.
“Any more than that and I just break down with illness or injury, so I supplement running with cross training, on the bike or in the pool,” she explains.
“I will do two to three sessions a week, along with a long run of about 90-95 minutes. Each of my standard runs average out at 8 miles, and I’ll either take one rest day a week or run an easy 5 miles instead on a Friday.”
Despite still being some way off her 30th birthday, the Stockport ace confides that, as she’s got older, she’s become more flexible with how she adapts her training around the rest of life’s demands.
“I will often do a long run on a Friday instead of the weekend if we have a family event coming up, and move the sessions from the ‘traditional’ Tuesday and Thursday schedule,” she reveals. “It helps too that I train mostly on my own, unless I can persuade one of my colleagues at work to join me mid-week.”
She adds that she is grateful to work in a department that allows her to be flexible with her training.
“I love how my job, which is full time, helps balance out my running life, I enjoy doing both,” she explains. “I often leave early from home to enable me to train in Nottingham before I start work at 9am at the university, or work then run.
I am very lucky to work with people who understand what I do – the head of my department is a top masters tennis player, so she really gets it.”
The healthy balance she has now struck between training hard enough to get results but not so hard that her body breaks down has not come easy, however.
A decade of fractured bones and dreams
The number of stress fractures and stress responses Piasecki has sustained is nothing short of heartbreaking.
She was struck down with her first navicular stress fracture in 2008 after racing over the country for GB, followed by a period out of the sport in an immobilising boot and crutches.
It was because she hadn’t had a period (amenorrhea) at all at that point that the fracture became virtually unavoidable.
Why does amenorrhea lower bone density and lead to stress fractures?
A athlete’s monthly cycle involves the essential production of the hormone oestrogen – without it, bone is broken down instead of new bone forming.
Piasecki only developed her first natural period earlier this year. Due to the fact she went so long without one (any period she did have during that time was brought on artificially by use of the oral contraceptive pill for nine years) she developed osteoporosis and stress fracture after stress fracture until as recently as last year.
Instead of receiving specialist support, alongside the pill she was prescribed bisphosphonates (osteoporosis medication) and then daily injections of teriparatide (a bone growing agent) for 18 months in an attempt to prevent any further bone deterioration.
Countless stress fractures and compression fractures in the spine later, as well as hamstring, hip and plantar fascia tears (the latter half way through a marathon where she was on target for a Rio Olympics qualifying time), she had one last crack at marathon training last year.
Her goal? To qualify for the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
Exhausted and in pain, she sustained another spinal fracture along with one in her ribs. Another dream disappeared over the horizon, but all was not lost.
Using negative experiences to influence a brighter future for athletes today
Determined that her knowledge and experience wouldn’t go to waste, she has ploughed all of her energy (outside of training that is!) to use her work as a lecturer in exercise physiology and a researcher at Nottingham Trent University to raise awareness of RED-S.
Having worked hard to reach full fitness while addressing the issues that led to her dangerously low bone density, she now dedicates hours of her working and free time educating athletes, coaches and their families about the importance of the menstrual cycle.
Alongside Piasecki’s continuing research in her position at the university, she is working with as many people as possible to ‘improve understanding of how important it is to fuel your training well enough for your body to function properly’.
“I want to help more doctors understand that when a young woman comes to them to say they have never had a period or haven’t had a cycle in months or years, that’s not ok,” she states firmly.
“Alongside the work I have done with Georgie Bruinvels and Esther Goldsmith at FitrWoman (an app aimed at helping female athletes to understand their menstrual cycle), for whom I am an ambassador, I am determined to do as many talks as I can on the subject, alongside further research into the subject.
“I was told to take the pill to force my body to have a period when I have should have been educated on why my body couldn’t produce one naturally, and the dangers that entailed for my health.
“I have been very happy to be involved in England Athletics conferences where I’ve been able to talk about energy availability and the body’s natural functions. I have also talked to groups of runners at young athlete camps, BMC meetings and clubs involved with Helen Clitheroe’s coaching set up.
“In addition, I work with people through my company RunScience, where I help athletes with everything to do with running, including training programmes, nutrition and injury prevention.”
While regular NHS blood tests and DEXA scans (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry) keep tabs on Piasecki’s own bone density levels – which have improved but are still fairly low – she is enjoying this latest run of impressive racing form.
What’s next for the athlete who won the rearranged Trafford 10k in September in a scintillating 32:51 before kicking off a top drawer cross country season?
“I may try and get to the Ribble Valley 10k at the end of the month, but I’m not sure as it depends on a complicated travel arrangement,” she explains.
“After that I’ll definitely be lining up at the international cross county in Stirling in January.”
Piasecki has another major competitive aim for 2019, but it is one that she is fighting for the right to take part in, alongside a number of other GB athletes including Jess Judd and Amy Griffiths.
“If I was to run well enough to gain selection at the trials next March, I really want to be considered for a potential senior women’s World Cross Country team to go to Denmark,” she reveals.
“UKA haven’t revealed yet whether they will be sending a team, but I will be keeping everything crossed that we are given the opportunity to compete on the world stage.”
Given that she managed a superb 26th in the 2007 U20 World Cross Country Championships in Kenya, it would be very exciting indeed to see how well she would do given the chance to compete at the senior event in March.