Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of posts come up on popular running sites. Runners World, Mile Split, and FloTrack have all been addressing the elephant in the room: eating disorders in female runners.
I read these posts and I feel so overjoyed that I am not alone.
Yes, I am one of the runners these articles are written about/for.
This blog has always been a spot for me to share things that enlighten and lift up others around me, especially when it comes to body image. But this year I began facing problems that made it impossible to think about myself positively. Writing anything on here made me feel like a fraud because I could not practice what I was preaching. So I abandoned blogging.
For the first time, I experienced the so called “dark side” of running. I knew runners who had experienced this, and I had gotten small tastes of it, but it had never fully engulfed my entire life the way it did during spring semester this year.
It started with feelings of inadequacy that I had always struggled with. These negative feelings manifested themselves in an obsession with changing my body. At first it started with roughly estimating my daily caloric intake. Then, the app MyFitnessPal became a dangerous tool I used to control and restrict everything I ate. With the obsession with this app came the obsession with measuring food. At first I would use measuring utensils to track what I was consuming. But then, just like everything else, it simply was not enough anymore. I remember driving to Walmart and buying a food scale to weigh my food. Thirty-two grams is one serving of peanut butter, so I would measure it out to a T. When there was a little left over on the spoon I washed it down the drain rather than licking it off.
The more I weighed my food, the more I began to restrict my calorie intake. My training became less about running fast and more about how little I could eat while still (barely) functioning as a runner. After a couple months of depriving my body of everything it desperately needed (and wanted) I started experiencing extreme fatigue on my runs. My legs felt great, but I couldn’t run more than a few steps without feeling totally exhausted. I joked that I just wanted to lay on the track and nap instead of doing a workout, but there was more truth behind that than I led on.
I went to see a doctor because I suspected my iron levels were low again. I opened up to the nurse who was taking my vitals, telling her about what I had been doing and how I felt. “I don’t normally tell patients this, but I struggled with an eating disorder for 11 years. I know what you’re going through. You aren’t alone,” she replied. This was the first time I felt safe and okay about opening up to another person about my problems. This nurse was the first person who made me feel like I deserved help.
I was going through a period of time where I had been majorly restricting my food, and when I got my blood drawn I passed out. “Did you eat today?” the same nurse asked. I hadn’t. She helped me eat a cookie and drink orange juice. When I got in the car to go home, I began to panic because I hadn’t read the back of the cookie package to see how many calories were in the cookie I ate.
That’s the reality of an eating disorder. It makes you do irrational and abnormal things, like googling different brands of cookies to determine a rough estimate of the calories you consumed when about to pass out from not eating enough.
But what I think was more notable than the physical fatigue I experienced was the mental exhaustion I began to face.
When runners say they struggled with an eating disorder, people picture a thin girl eating a salad after her meet, or munching on a rice cake for breakfast. While this may be accurate for some cases, people do not see the full picture.
You see, when I started this, I was thankful for my struggles. Because I felt guilty for everything I ate, I thought I was finally “strong enough” to lose the weight I had been wanted to get rid of for years. As sad as it sounds, there was a time I prayed and asked God to please help me be “strong enough” to lose weight and cut back on how much I ate.
What I did not realize was the mental toll this would take on me, or how it would put strains on my relationships. I didn’t think that me restricting my food would bring upon feelings of anxiety and depression that caused me to become withdrawn from my everyday life. It did not occur to me that I would become the opposite of strong. I didn’t think about how I would become so mentally unstable from depriving my body of what it needed that I would break down in front of my team during a workout, in the middle of a rep, because I was so panicked about how poorly my workout was going.
It was ironic, because the more I craved control over everything I put into my body, the more I lost all control of everything else in my life. I could no longer manage my emotions even slightly, which caused me to become a person I hardly recognized.
I thought runners developed eating disorders and felt hungry sometimes but still ran fast. I was so wrong. I took pictures of myself, flaunting my abs, and everyone around me said I looked strong and attractive. I cannot blame the people who thought they were being kind by saying something positive about how I looked, but no one truly saw what was happening behind the scenes.
In pictures like the one above, I had people telling me how strong I looked. But the truth is, is that the day I took this picture I had attempted a fairly easy workout on the treadmill and ended up sitting in the bathroom at the school Rec Center having an anxiety attack because I could only complete half of it. Not only was I weak physically, but mentally I was filled with anxiety and self-hate.
You see, in a lot of pieces I’ve read about eating disorders in runners the authors spoke about becoming “temporarily faster” but then being prone to injuries. I fixated on the “becoming temporarily faster” part. I wanted to qualify for nationals and I thought losing weight was the key to getting in, but it was the sole thing that kept me from reaching my full potential this season.
I cannot help but know in my heart that if I had not had to cut my workouts and runs short on all the days I was too fatigued to complete them, I would’ve probably been fit enough to run the time it took to qualify for the meet.
That is the reality. Not everyone develops an eating disorder and experiences success of any kind, even short lived. And that needs to be said. The broadcasting of the notion that losing weight will bring you towards any type of success (even short-lived) when running competitively is harmful and dangerous to young women (and men) in the sport.
I convinced myself I was not sick enough to deserve help. I read stories of girls with eating disorders who ate only 600 calories a day, who were severely underweight, and who experienced all sorts of side effects that I didn’t. Not only was I not good enough for myself, I wasn’t good enough for an eating disorder either.
In Alexis Fairbanks’ article in Runner’s World, she says, “Until as recently as a few months ago I’d never called my eating disorder what it was. I’d say, ‘I had issues with food,’ or ‘I was crazy about running,’ or ‘I struggled with body image.'”
Yes, I struggle with food, running, and body image. But this was more than just a struggle. Once I began to open up to my friends about what was going on, I felt better about seeking help. There is a huge stigma that, as runners, we have to be strong and tough and that talking to a professional goes against the mental grit we possess that makes us successful in our sport. But that simply is not true.
Once I began to talk to a therapist and fuel my body again, I gained a little bit of weight. But I also gained my life back. I gained happiness and emotional stability and the power to run and feel strong again. I found that the key to loving yourself does not lie within the idea of looking a certain way but rather within the belief that you are more than just a body.
I wrote this article and I sat on it for a couple of months. I was too scared about what others might think of me, and I didn’t want to be seen as “weak” by my friends and competitors. But recently, I had lunch with a close friend and old coach of mine who told me what an impact my blog posts had on her.
I know that I need to be open before I am able to continue blogging again, and I hope that by being open and honest that someone else who may be struggling with the same thing can feel encouraged that things get better, and that you are not alone in your struggles.
I refuse to feel embarrassed about this because I believe so whole-heartedly that the topic of mental health in athletes and especially distance runners is overlooked and way too stigmatized.
So here’s to being strong and healthy and more than just a body.
Here’s to valuing a life of happiness over having defined muscles or a 6-pack.
Here’s to being open and honest- I want everyone who may be struggling that they are not alone.
And lastly, here’s to blogging again! My dearest friends, I am back!