Distance running isn’t a dangerous sport by nature. Although I do not think I could name a single runner (including myself) that hasn’t suffered an injury, minor or serious, it doesn’t conjure up the same “being carried off the field on a stretcher with a broken (insert body part here) or concussion” image as say–football. Despite the ingrown toenails, iron deficiencies, stress fractures, and sprained ankles that plague so many of us, I’d be willing to bet any mother would take distance running for their offspring over football or alpine skiing any day.
In contrast to the mental image of a happy-go-lucky runner crossing the finish line grinning ear to ear, there is a hidden danger in distance running. It is rarely talked about and as a result, rarely treated. This quiet danger of distance running is disordered eating.
In that happy-go-lucky runner image you have in your head, you’re probably picturing a rail-thin man or woman with defined quads and unstoppable abs. I do too. This is the norm. The problem is, for many runners (females especially) there is a misconception that in order to the best runner you can be you must be the thinnest runner you can be. That is bullshit.
Let’s take a step back for a second and talk about eating disorders. Eating disorders (ED) are a serious mental illness that disturbs a person’s eating patterns and encompasses anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and eating disorders not otherwise specified. The National Eating Disorder Association estimates at least 30 million Americans (20m females, 10m males) will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. It is also important to note that many ED’s are undiagnosed and more often than not, due to any number of reasons ranging from the stigma associated with ED’s to insurance issues, ED’s go untreated. If it doesn’t seem like a big deal yet, I’ve got one more startling fact for you; ED’s have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. I hope by now you understand how serious and dangerous an illness it is.
When it comes to running, disordered eating is too often common practice. The jury is still out on whether or not athletic status is a risk or protective factor for disordered eating, but research has demonstrated that lean sport athletes (like distance running, gymnastics, ballet, etc.) are at higher risk for ED than non-lean sport athletes or non-athletes. Some studies have demonstrated an eating disorder prevalence rate among athletes as high as 35%!
Many runners truly believe they are skipping this or that meal because they are doing what is best for their body. Running is a mental sport and if eating 1000 calories a day while running 60-mile weeks makes you think you are running faster, you’re probably going to do it. If the girl who wins the NCAA championship in cross-country is underweight, it is easy to internalize a belief that if you were her size, you’d be winning races too.
It is a slippery slope in the competitive world. You may start by cutting out that extra slice of pizza on Saturday post-race or by not eating ice cream in-season to be “healthy”. You may run an extra mile here and there and follow long runs with unscheduled gym sessions because you want truly to get better. You will probably see results too, your times get faster, you teammates notice you look a little fitter, and your coach praises your dedication. Nothing about it seems negative until it’s spiraled out of control too quickly to stop it. Suddenly you become obsessive and unhappy. Nothing seems to go right no matter how much more effort you put forth, your performance declines or you become injured, and if you’re a female you may experience the Female Athlete Triad (energy deficiency, amenorrhea, bone loss).
Far too many runners experience a similar spiral from working hard to be healthy and become the best runner they can be to a having a full-blown eating disorder. Even runners without a disorder by clinical definition often have seriously unhealthy relationships with food or their body. It is important to understand how serious the mental side of an eating disorder is and not allow it to be swept under the rug.
There is no easy solution to this problem, but I believe talking about it is a good place to start. Recently, one division one standout Rachele Schulist did just that, taking to her Instagram to share her story. Her story went viral in an important first step to fuel a conversation so many runners can relate to. I have a similar story that I will share in a later post.
It is also important to talk among teams. Coaches must talk to their athletes and be a source of support when someone is struggling. As runners, we need to talk to each other. And more importantly, we need to talk to each other in a positive way. I can only speak to the interactions of a female team, but girls love to talk crap about themselves to other girls. We put ourselves down constantly. We feed off one another’s crap-talking and before we know it we have all pointed out every detail that we hate about ourselves instead of appreciating the fact that we are intelligent, kind, hardworking beings that probably woke up and ran 12 damn miles 3 hours before the crap-talking session ensued. I do not know you, but listen to me when I say this: you are not fat. I know how hard it is to believe that some days, but if you are running 5-6 days a week at a high-level, you just can’t be (science) and if you think that, please please please reach out for help.
Help yourself and your teammates. Start a conversation even though it may be uncomfortable at first, you will find solace in the fact that you are not alone. Seek help when you need it. As athletes, it is hard to feel weak and vulnerable, but seeking help is strong and brave. We are beginning to destroy the stigma around eating disorders and other mental illnesses, do not be afraid to aid in that process.
If you have a story, share it. If you’d like to chat about the topic, I’d love to. If you need more information on eating disorders following one of the links below or reach out-I have found my fair share of literature on the topic. And if you are struggling with an eating disorder, please seek help or at the very least confide in someone who may be able to support you.
National Eating Disorder Association
National Institute of Mental Health
The Female Athlete Body Project
NEDA Helpline: 1-800-931-2237