NS EXCLUSIVE: Steph Wood – drug testing and DEXA scans

NS EXCLUSIVE: Steph Wood – drug testing and DEXA scans

Cover Image: Aliesha Vicars


When Diamonds’ vice-captain Steph Wood heads to the Netball World Cup, it will be with an individualised nutrition and hydration programme to help her meet the demands of a long tournament.

“The importance of nutrition is one of the biggest things I’ve learned during my career,” she said. “It’s about refuelling and recovery, not restricting your body. If you restrict your intake during a tournament, you are going to pay for it at the end.”

Advances in sports science means that nutrition and hydration is a valuable tool for athletes to perform at their peak, but can also help in injury prevention and recovery, support female specific needs, and minimise the risk of taking in contaminated products.


The science

Science drives how an athlete’s nutrition and hydration needs are measured, and working in tandem with the clubs, the Diamonds use that technology to support their athlete’s performance and health.

Training, gym sessions and matches can all be measured, and players take in fuel depending on their needs. Wood explained, “We get all the information we need according to what kind of session we have. At a gym session for example, we will need to eat before and after it, to get the most out of those sessions.

In the past skinfold testing was heavily relied on as an assessment tool, but came with mental health and wellbeing concerns, with body image issues a particular concern. A Netball Australia policy now means that only the senior national team have skin fold measures taken, and even then it’s an opt-in basis only for personal use only.


Steph Wood’s nutrition and hydration are tailored to meet her high performance needs. Image Simon Leonard


Athletes currently use wearables such as Whoop devices, and can undergo a range of measures such as sweat testing, iron testing and DEXA scans. Dual energy x-ray absorptiometry – or understandably DEXA for short – shows how bone mass, fat and lean muscle is distributed on a scan, and can provide percentages for each. It has a range of useful applications, including making sure that bone mineral density isn’t being lost through too much exercise and inadequate nutrition, that muscle isn’t being significantly lost post injury, and that muscles are balanced from one side of the body to the other, which helps in injury prevention.

Wood said, “Everything is individualised, because one thing doesn’t suit everyone. For example, our dietitian at Lightning leans towards a DEXA scan for me because it gives me a bigger picture. Seeing skinfold numbers constantly – personally it’s something I don’t love because it doesn’t tell the full story.”

Sweat testing – where an athlete’s sweat rate and sodium loss is measured, and fluid weight loss during hard court sessions can also be measured. Wood said, “There’s a complicated mathematical formula that tells you how much energy you are using, what you need to fuel during court work, a game, and then especially after a game, and how much fluid you have to replace.

“I’ve learned that I’m on the higher end of loss, and I need to consume more carbohydrates during a game than I used to do.”

Around half of all female athletes are iron deficient at some point, and it can take months to correct. That can be checked with regular blood tests. Wood said, “It’s important to make sure our iron isn’t going too low. If you aren’t getting your monthly cycle that can be one indicator, while DEXA scans can also help. Keeping our iron levels up are another reason why fuelling our bodies properly is so important.”


Steph Wood and Liz Watson have been a formidable leadership combination. Image Jenny Sinclair

Steph Wood (left) and Liz Watson led Australia at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, and will again act as vice-captain and captain respectively at the 2023 Netball World Cup. Image Jenny Sinclair


These days netball is classified as more of a power sport – in general terms the ability to combine strength and speed. With that, there’s been a shift in how athletes fuel their bodies. Wood said, “It is critical and we’ve had a lot of education around this. If people have a bigger muscle mass they are going to have higher energy needs. Everyone is different though – what I might need to consume is different to what someone else needs to consume, or a different position on court needs to consume.

“I’m not the leanest athlete, so making that mental shift to refuelling your body and recovering your body, NOT restricting your body, has been so important, and especially at tournaments.

“You have a week between games at Suncorp Super Netball level to recover, so you have a few days up your sleeve to get your body back to where it should be.

“But at the World Cup, you’re playing eight games in ten days. It’s so crucial to make sure you do everything you need to recover after each game. You might not feel it day one, but you do feel it at the critical end part of the tournament where we need to be firing.”

With gastro making its way through the Quad Series teams earlier this year, the Diamonds have discussed extra precautions around their food and drink. While Wood said illness can be part and parcel of catching long flights and having large groups of people coming together, there are preventative measures each player can take. “Minimising risks by using good hand hygiene and drinking bottled water. Food needs to be considered carefully. The hotel the teams are staying at is incredible, and I know a lot of work has been put into providing a variety of food and making sure it meets all the health standards.”


DEXA scans can help medical staff check the level of muscular protection around joints. Image Marcela Massey


Drug testing

As an elite athlete, Wood has to comply with the World Anti-Doping Code’s ‘any time, any place’ policy. Governed in Australia by the Sports Integrity Unit, national athletes have to make themselves available for testing in and out of competition, at home or at the venue, and provide a wealth of details on their ‘whereabouts’, from their overnight location, to work, study, training and match time slots.

Wood said, “The majority of times I’ve been tested have been at games and at training. It’s a random choice – you get told when you rock up and you have to produce a urine sample before they let you go.”

Independent chaperones walk athletes through the process, and have to watch their urine leaving the body. Wood laughed, “I have been known to keep them waiting for a while, as I’m not the world’s greatest – I can’t pee quickly.

“The chaperones are great about making sure we follow the right procedure. The athletes are the ones that check to make sure the packaging around the kit doesn’t have holes in it, seal the A and B samples tightly, and parcel it up. They talk us through it, but it’s our responsibility. If it looks like something has been damaged you can choose a different package.”

Athletes can be sanctioned for evading, refusing or failing to submit a drug test, even if it falls during menstruation. And with penalties as tough as for a positive sample, it’s important to comply. While the process is invasive Wood trusts in its importance. She said, “It’s not a normal thing to do, but you know as an athlete that it’s keeping our sport clean, so it’s part and parcel of being an elite athlete.”

With a wide ranging list of banned substances, athletes have to be vigilant about any food, medications and supplements they might use. Products such as vitamins and protein powders will be sent off for batch testing, and athletes keep a record of every batch number they consume. If an inadvertent error occurred – for example cross contamination in the factory, those batches could then be assessed to help prove that an athlete didn’t take a banned substance purposefully.

Wood said, “It’s important to make sure the ingredients are what they say they are. Keeping your batch numbers well documented gives athletes some measure of safety.”


Steph Wood in action for Australia. Image: Aliesha Vicars

Steph Wood in action for Australia. Image: Aliesha Vicars

Wood is also extremely careful to avoid cross contamination at home. She explained, “I have a partner who has his own protein. We take precautions, he gets batch tested products, but he also has his own smoothie making device that I don’t use. It eliminates the risks of trace elements ending up in my food, because we have seen people end up with a positive sample because of this.”

Athletes being treated for an illness or medical condition have to take extra precautions such as checking whether a medication is on the banned list. Athletes may be able to get a Therapeutic Use Exemption for medications that treat a diagnosed medical condition, but only where it won’t enhance performance and there is no reasonable alternative. Some medications that fall into this category are those used to treat asthma, sinusitis, anaphylaxis, polycystic ovary syndrome and female infertility.

To date, the only netballer who has received a sanction was Jamaican Simone Forbes. She was prescribed a drug used to treat her infertility, and neither she nor her medical specialist realised it was on the banned list. The subsequent penalty ended her international playing career.





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About the Author:

Physiotherapist, writer and netball enthusiast. Feature articles, editorials and co-author of "Shine: the making of the Australian Netball Diamonds". Everyone has a story to tell, and I'm privileged to put some of them on paper. Thank you to the phenomenal athletes, coaches and people in the netball world who open a door to their lives, and let me tiptoe in.
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