Eating Disorders and Running – my thoughts on why it happens and what we can do

In honor of the end of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I decided to share some thoughts on eating disorders in our sport, as well as my story about my own relationship with food, running, and finding a happy balance.

Why do eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, exercise bulimia, orthorexia, and even binge-eating) plague the sport of distance running?

This is all purely based on my own experience and observations, but here’s what I see:

1) The vast majority of distance runners are Type A. We are perfectionists. When we find out something is good for us, we tend to assume that more is better. And then we do even more.

If you ask me which is the chicken, and which is the egg, I’d say that distance running attracts this personality type. Occasionally it happens that becoming a runner brings out obsessive behaviors, but I would argue that more often than not it’s the other way around.

There are lots of great things about Type A personalities. For the most part we are self-motivated. We are highly effective. We are leaders. We love a good challenge. And yes, we also have a tendency to take things overboard.

That’s why this group also trends towards eating disorders. In my opinion, it’s not a causal affect, I think it’s just an overlap of populations.

2) There are lots of numbers involved in our sport. Our results are very black and white. We either ran faster than we have before or slower than we have before. We either won or lost against every other person in the race. There are no teammates to blame and no judges to hate.

With this constant numerical feedback, it becomes easy to start drawing parallels to the GPS watch and bathroom scale. And even the most intelligent runners can begin to assume that these correlations are accurate and unending.

And with all those numbers, it becomes really easy to rank ourselves and decide who is “better” and who is “worse.” There is a lot of judgement in our sport, and even when it comes to eating disorders, our tendency is to judge the runner instead of keeping an open mind and practicing compassion and empathy.

3) We wear very skimpy clothes in training and in racing. This can make it hard not to observe and compare body types and draw trends accordingly.

As women, we’re used to this scrutiny from ourselves and from others. We spend our lives comparing ourselves to doctored images of emaciated women on magazine covers.

To make matters worse, it just so happens that a lot of highly-trained runners do look very similar to that current model ideal. Lean, mean, running machines. So as a competitive female distance runner, you’re getting the same message from both sides – skinnier is better.

I’m pretty sure every female runner has stood on a starting line and looked at the women around her. Intimidated by all the skinny girls, and assuming that the heavier girls don’t have a chance.

4) The isolation of an individual sport lends itself to addiction. Unlike team sports, there is very little in the way of collaboration that needs to be practiced outside of races, so 99% of the work can be done alone.

As a distance runner, you have to have self-discipline in order to be good. Your coach can’t watch you for every minute of every run. And most teams don’t practice every day or twice a day, which is how often distance runners train.

This means that if you’re already motivated to do enough, then there’s a good chance that you’ll become motivated to do more. In secret.

What Are We Talking About?

By now most of us hopefully know about all of the dangers associated with eating disorders, particularly when they are paired with distance running.

  • fatigue
  • decreased performance
  • soft-tissue injury
  • hormonal imbalance
  • decreased bone density
  • stress fractures
  • overtraining symptoms

The most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia, but in my 13 years in the sport, I’ve also met a lot of runners who suffer from

  • orthorexia – an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy.

and especially

  • exercise bulimia – the compulsion to exercise in an effort aimed at burning the calories of food energy and fat reserves to an excessive level that negatively affects their health.

Here is a list of warning signs from Eating Disorder Hope:

  • Increased isolation
  • More frequent occurrences of injuries, such as sprains or muscle strains
  • Decreased concentration, coordination, and energy
  • Increased fatigue, low energy
  • Decreased social interaction with coaches and teammates
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Physical complaints, such as light-headedness, muscle aches, dizziness
  • Prolonging training beyond what is required for sport
  • Continued training, even when sick or injured

 

My Story

The truth is that I would say 99% of distance runners who read that list have recognized at least one of these symptoms in themselves.

My high school running career originated from a place of poor body image. After dealing with it by experimenting with my own hunger games for the first two years of high school, I went away to Germany my junior year. In that new environment with a different diet, a new exercise routine, and a whole new set of demands for my brain to function in a different language, I gained 20 pounds in less than 7 months.

So almost exactly 13 years ago, I started running as a way to lose weight. I also quickly discovered many of the other benefits of running – the awesome stress release, the delicious feeling of exhaustion and simultaneous accomplishment afterwards, and the delight in the progress that I made each day as I got fitter and stronger.

Joining my high school track team my senior year was a big part of my transition from weight-loss goals performance goals. I no longer obsessed about calories or savored the feeling of hunger. I immediately saw food as fuel for performance. But that didn’t keep me from reverting back to old ways when I wasn’t running.

It took me years to shake off that original weight-loss objective. After all, I had started running as a replacement for my old not-eating habits. If what I had before I started running was anorexia, what I had replaced it with was a form of exercise bulimia. Food was still somewhat of a reward for exercise, and if I didn’t run, I still didn’t eat. For years I had a lingering refrain ringing in my head during runs. “Gotta lose weight, gotta lose weight.”

It has been a glacial shift, but I can look back now and know that there is a huge difference in how I perceive my body, food, and exercise.

What Can We Do to Help?

So the big question is, as runners, teammates, coaches, parents, and friends, what can we do to help ourselves and each other to develop and maintain a healthy relationship with food and exercise?

These are some of the changes that I’ve stumbled upon over the last 13 years. Again, these are purely based on my own observations and lessons learned. Maybe some of them can help you, too.

1) Refrain from judgement of others. It’s a huge tendency in our culture to judge and verbally shame others for behaviors that we disagree with. It’s so natural. Of course I still fall into it, too.

However, shaming is a massive obstruction to progress. Yes, it points out what is bad, but if you are speaking to someone who may also lean towards those tendencies, it also causes that person to feel that they must hide that part of themselves from everyone else.

Shaming leads to isolation. Isolation leads to further addiction and lying.

As mentors, coaches, teammates, and parents, it is up to us to create and maintain a community of psychological safety and openness. If a runner knows that he/she can come to you with any kind of question or concern without being judged, then that person is more likely to come to you when their question or issue is one that you really need to hear.

2) Positive examples of healthy habits. While training approaches are extremely relative, we can all learn something from the people in the top of our field, especially when it comes to how we approach moderation and healthy balance in our training.

Unfortunately top runners post a lot more about their hard workouts and healthy meals than their easy runs and cheat days, but that information is out there, too. And when in doubt, just reach out! In my experience, most top runners are happy to share!

One of my obsessive behaviors in running was this: before GPS watches existed I would come home from my run, and before I ate or changed out of my sweaty clothes, I would map out exactly where I had run (zooming in to the satellite images and manually clicking out the sidewalk because the center of the road wasn’t accurate enough), and calculating my segmental paces for each portion of the run.

Why? Because I was constantly assessing myself on every single run. I was obsessed with measuring whether or not I had run hard enough every day.

While I got better about it over the years, that habit remained until I went to ZAP at age 24. All of a sudden I couldn’t map out my runs because we ran in the woods over half the time. At that point, my wins and losses were based on whether or not I was sticking with Alissa McKaig or the men on the team. And I was losing.

A few months later, I started reading the running log of Janet Cherobon-Bawcom in 2011 (before she became an Olympian). When I first looked at her log, I figured it must be another Janet Cherobon because this one ran 8:15-8:45 pace every day for her easy runs. But as I took a closer look, I realized that it was the same one, because this one was also running 33 minutes to win road 10ks nearly every weekend.

I actually contacted Janet to ask her if she truly ran that slow or if she just calculated her mileage based on 9min pace and rounded up. To my surprise, she actually got back to me and told me that she had measured all of her running loops with her Garmin and although she didn’t run with it every day, the length of her loops were accurate and she really did indeed run that slow.

This was a huge lesson, and it definitely changed how I approached my daily easy runs.

The good news is that there are loads of positive role models in our sport. As coaches and members of the running community, it is very important that we promote all of these runners and particularly the healthy and balanced aspects of their approach to training.

3) Emphasis on recovery as a crucial part of training and progress. The only way to benefit from training is to recover. And the two most crucial aspects of recovery are rest and nutrition. The harder we work, the harder we need to recover.

When an athlete is super motivated and driven by performance, it is really helpful to make clear objectives for each training session and present them with what a balanced week looks like for that individual athlete. That means that if you had a hard workout yesterday and your objective today is to run easy, you need to stick to that objective. In that case, slower is better. And that is a hard concept for a lot of runners to get.

Everybody recovers differently depending on how we are made. Some people can handle 3 workouts per week with hard runs in between. Other people (like me) can only really handle 1 workout and a long run each week, with very easy running in between. I know that a big part of my development has been learning to grade my recovery days on completion and whether or not I achieved that objective: recovery.

Likewise, our bodies all require different quantities and qualities in our diet to properly recover from our exercise. There is no magic formula that will work for everybody, so that is why it’s important that you seek out advice from a knowledgable sports nutritionist if you are unsure.

In my experience, it’s not nearly as much about what we are eating as it is about when and how much. A lot of runners don’t eat frequently enough or enough calories at the right times, and it’s an honest mistake. Inform yourself about what you need, especially given your level of activity, and the demands that you put on your body every day.

I think a lot of our trouble with this originates in the fact that as runners we spend so much time trying not to listen to the voice in our head that tells us to stop during races and workouts, that we start ignoring the helpful voices in our heads that tell us when to eat and what our body needs.

4) Feelings > numbers. As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, I am a very numbers-oriented person. That’s all fine and good as long as the numbers don’t start out-ruling your feelings. I like to say that I’ve developed a healthy relationship with my Garmin just like I’ve developed a healthy relationship with my scale.

A lot of people find that when they run with a GPS watch or weigh themselves every day, they get obsessed with the numbers. In response to this, many people choose to stop doing those things altogether.

I still weigh myself almost every day, and I wear a Garmin on almost all my training runs. But my relationship with the numbers on their displays has changed.

I used to look at the numbers and if they were over a certain pre-determined mark, I’d think “too fat” or “too slow.” I tried adding bottom-end numbers and setting objectives to stay over certain paces on easy days and over a certain weight to make sure I stayed healthy, but that didn’t really work.

What did work was a change in my mindset, and it was actually quite simple. Instead of letting the numbers dictate how I felt, I just reversed the order.

I learned to first check how I felt on a run like “this feels hard” or “this feels easy,” and then I would look at my watch and see what it said and then instead my thought would become “oh, that’s why,” “huh… this effort is slower today,” or “this effort is faster today.”

And with the scale, I would first think “how do I feel?” The answer would be something like hungry, full, light, heavy, fit, or out of shape. Then I’d step on the scale and think “huh… feeling heavy is XXX today.”

I’ve learned to let the numbers serve as just another set of independent data points to observe over time without judgement. And honestly, through this process, I’ve learned to trust my feelings way more than any gadget or its numbers.

5) Comparison kills joy. We are all different and have different needs. Just because someone else can eat more or less, or run more or less or faster or slower, and still perform “better” than you doesn’t mean that either of you are doing it wrong.

In the areas of both training and nutrition, it is important that you recognize that everything is relative and what works for one person may not work for another. I’ve spent way too much time and tears thinking about what somebody else is eating or the pace that they are running or the workouts they are doing and wondering why I can’t be like them or if it means that I just don’t work hard enough.

The truth is that we all have to find out what works for each of us, and learn to support healthy habits and healthy behaviors in ourselves and each other.

To deem one way bad implies that the other way is good, and that just gets us into all kinds of trouble, especially with Type A personalities. As they say in yoga, you have to “focus on your own mat,” and use the resources you have to find out what works for you.

6) And finally… When in doubt, don’t assume. Just ask.

It can be hard to know what to say if you notice unhealthy behaviors in a friend, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. In my limited experience, I’ve found it most effective to come to that person from a place of curiosity instead of judgement. It can be really hard to shift your emotional stance, but it’s worth it.

Try not to ask pointed questions that indicate what the “correct” response is. Do your best to keep your questions open-ended and be truly open-minded to any response that you might receive. Yes, one answer might mean you’ve got a lot more work on your hands than the other, but if it doesn’t come out now, it could be way more work to help that person later.

Whew! That’s a long one, but this topic is one that I have done a lot of thinking about over the years. Hopefully some of my experiences and thoughts will help someone to find a happier, healthier place with running, eating, and loving life!

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