This post uncovers secrets of body image struggles and the high prevalence of eating disorders in the sport of cross country and distance running. Please note, this is not targeted at anyone in particular as it is only to spread awareness of the impact our sport has on many female runners.
When you think “female distance runner,” what image comes to mind?
Thin? Lean? Wispy? Emaciated?
Likely, the word “strong” doesn’t appear first in your head, if at all.
Every time someone discovers that I’m an athlete, they’ll take their shot with a guess: Soccer player? Sprinter? Rower? Hurdler? Surely not a… cross country runner?! A look of surprise always hits their face when I tell them, as my face falls, knowing what they’re thinking.
Just last month, I was at an exercise conference when an older guy comes up to me and without introducing himself, says, “Wow, you have HUGE thighs!” He then proceeded to ask if I was a soccer player, or if I had considered power lifting, referring to my “big thighs,” while gawking at them the entire time.
If you know me, you might be baffled. I am healthy to the average person in the most objective sense. But in a race, I’m one of the “bigger-boned” runners. One who belongs in the back of the pack — or so I’ve been conditioned to tell myself over the years.
Flashback to a race just last year: It feels like it was yesterday… I’m standing at the starting line, telling myself I’m a big, fat slug. A slug. I glance to my left, jealously analyzing the girl’s body next to mine. “If only I looked like her…”, spiraling into a series of thoughts: “If only I weighed less, ate less, ran more, were more disciplined…”
The gun fires, and I take my spot, slugging behind the rest of the pack, watching the thin, wispy figure lead the way towards the win, with a group of stick-thin runners beside her.
The race ends and I’m dead. last. Sullen, I take in what’s around me, observing the front pack and resenting them for having the willpower to resist food, to hit 80 miles in a week, to keep pressing on to a smaller size. Why can’t mine do the same? The rest of the day, I convince myself it’s because of my size that I’m slow. Something’s gotta change. And it’s me.
I used to talk to my mom about this. While she’s an amazing person (love you, mom), her response was similar to what I had read and heard in numerous weight loss websites, magazines, all over the media: “Eat less, exercise more. Oh, and while you’re at it, cut down on carbs.” Makes sense, doesn’t it? I couldn’t blame her. It’s science. It’s common sense. It’s what society tells us.
So I did. I tried. I tracked my food, logging religiously 7 days a week — staying under my 1700, sometimes 1500 calorie goal, and feeling guilty if I ever went over the limit, which was too often for my liking. I would follow rules, such as “Only eat x grams of carbs” (under 100 grams, on my lowest days) or “Don’t eat after 8 pm” — sometimes not eating anything after a 5:00 dinner and going to bed with a growling stomach, waking up famished and slugging through a morning run on empty, which only exacerbated my feeling like a snail. In addition, I logged extra miles, hit the gym for some supplementary strength training, treadmill walks, and even some HIIT classes that left me too sore to run well at practice the next day. I ended up dreading running, despising myself and resenting the sport as a whole.
What else happened? Well — along with losing my period, always feeling cold (especially my hands and feet), and experiencing the worst fatigue and brain fog (What was that person’s name?), my body protested. My weight stagnated. My performance only got worse. And feeling deprived for days and weeks on end, I often binged. My body was so deprived that I’d go overboard and eat way more than I intended to. I never purged or starved myself entirely. Is that an eating disorder? Perhaps not. What I do know is that it certainly was disordered eating.
Did I lose weight? Hardly. Did I get the abs I was looking for? Occasionally — thanks to dehydration and deprivation. A noticeable thigh gap? Yes, and weakened leg muscles, which was probably tied to the constant shin and ankle pain I often experienced. Performance? Sucked — absolutely out the window. Was it worth it? You tell me.
Unfortunately, your body works more like a seesaw than a calculator. You can’t neglect the laws of homeostasis. It’s smarter than numbers. For some people, the calorie cutting works — for a limited time. Eventually it fights back.
Typically, most women require somewhere between 1200–1500 calories simply to sustain our basic bodily functions —eating and digesting food, sleeping, breathing, reproduction, etc. This is also called our basal metabolic rate, the amount our body burns entirely at rest. Between going to and from class, running, and other life demands as athletes, our bodies expend much more than just that. Internally, eating fewer calories than your body expends for too long slows down your metabolism as your body realizes what’s happening. It then goes to the non-vital in an attempt to conserve energy — it stops producing estrogen, shutting down your reproductive system, which leads to significant losses in bone mineral density, making you more prone to injury, osteoporosis and infertility. On top of that, it weakens your immune system, linking you to an increased risk for an autoimmune disorder. All of these can (and WILL) have detrimental effects later down the road. It’s just a matter of when the consequences catch up to you.
What’s more important — dropping numbers and times for a single season, or maintaining healthy bones, an efficient metabolism, and the ability to have a family later on? Because I can tell you from personal experience, all of these are risks that you are taking when you sacrifice your health for a quick fix attempt at a breakthrough season. And let me note, a lighter weight on the scale doesn’t always transfer over to faster race times.
Luckily, my body gave out before things could get any worse. I began to see things for what they were. But what if it hadn’t? What if I had allowed this disorder to engulf me entirely? Things could have certainly gone down a different path today.
The Bigger Picture
The more and more I read, hear, and see, the more I realize how common eating disorders are in female distance running and the NCAA, from elite athletes to numerous competitors to my own teammates that struggle with body image, constant comparison, inconsistent eating habits and full-blown eating disorders.
In and out of the sport, it’s a lot more rampant than we think. Runners World states, “The condition is far more common among female runners, mirroring the trend seen in the general public. It’s estimated that 3 out of 4 American women between ages 25 and 45 practice disordered eating, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study. A 2009 report in the Journal of American College Health showed more than 25% of female college athletes exhibit disordered eating patterns. And in surveys of collegiate athletes, some 55 percent of women tell researchers they experience pressure (both external and self-imposed) to achieve a certain weight, and 43 percent say they’re “terrified” of becoming too heavy.”
Take into account these statistics reported by The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders:
“91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting.
86% report onset of eating disorder by age 20; 43% report onset between ages of 16 and 20.6.
Only 1 in 10 women and men with eating disorders receive treatment.
A comparison of the psychological profiles of athletes and those with anorexia found these factors in common: perfectionism, high self-expectations, competitiveness, hyperactivity, repetitive exercise routines, compulsiveness, drive, tendency toward depression, body image distortion, pre-occupation with dieting and weight.”
In our sport especially, eating disorders tend to go unnoticed. Coaches may turn their backs, pretending they don’t exist, keeping the topic under the table. Perhaps it’s simply a lack of awareness, education or training. An in-depth study of Division I female collegiate coaches and found that many simply were unaware or unsure of how to address eating disorders and communicate with athletes about the topic. They knew they existed, but weren’t sure how to broach the subject. Can we blame them?
Or more importantly, How have we allowed this to become the norm?
What have I learned?
Eating disorders are much more than skin deep, often deeply rooted in years and years of expectation derived within ourselves and from those around us. There is no quick-fix to the problem, and trying to put a band-aid on it only makes things worse. Cultivating love, respect, and appreciation for your body (and really for yourself overall) is a process. Commit to working on it every day.
Talk about it. Let people in. Share your struggles, and you will realize that many others can relate. As women and in our sport especially, we’re all in the same boat. Discussing these things can really help get the issues out from under the table and encourage open conversation.
Eat intuitively. Train intuitively. Rest mindfully. Focusing on arbitrary numbers and treating ourselves like robots creates a disconnect within ourselves. Listening to your body is the best and most individualized way to thrive, on and off the track.
Less is more. Your body needs time to recover and repair itself — that’s where the magic happens. Coming into a new cross country program this fall, I realized that by cutting my mileage down by about 1/3, stressing less about food, and forgoing the supplementary gym sessions (in a sense, simply following the training plan set forth by my coach and trusting the process), my performance increased dramatically, my love for running returned, and my body changed positively as a result, simply as a side effect.
Focus on performance, rather than appearance. The way you look does not always translate to how you run (and often doesn’t). Your body tends to have a “set point” within 5–10 pounds that it thrives at. Focus on the foods that make you feel your best, eating in qualities that satisfy your hunger, and sticking to training and sleeping habits that allow you to perform and feel your best.
Food is FUEL. Your body is an engine that requires energy in order to perform. Treat it as such. Starve it, overwork it, burn it out — and it will backfire. Feed it right, train smart, rest well, and it will amaze you.
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. If you think you may have an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise or know someone who does, please visit http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org, take a confidential online eating disorder screening and find more information on seeking help.