Running and Eating Disorder Recovery

Olive stands in a black sports bra and capris with hands on hips“I used to have an eating disorder.” If you’re a woman runner, chances are you’ve heard or even uttered this phrase more than once. In fact, I’ve said it. My story isn’t unique or all that remarkable. It’s a familiar story. Girl wants to lose a few pounds, likes the way she looks so tries to lose a few more, then a few more, then suddenly one day can count her ribs, can’t stay awake past 8:00 p.m., and doesn’t get a period for six years. Luckily, I came out relatively unscathed, save for a few less friends, some fertility treatments, and lots of emotional issues surrounding food.

A few weeks ago, some of the Saltines and I were talking about our backgrounds, and we realized that more than a few of us had a history of eating disorders. Today, I’d like to talk to those of us who have been through one and emerged on the other side, which, statistically speaking, is a lot of us. We address the gamut of running and ED recovery questions: Did running help or hurt our eating disorder recovery? Are there any special considerations we should take as we train? What are some tips and tricks to stay in recovery? 

While the Saltines’ struggles varied in severity, our conversation made me wonder if running tends to attract women who’ve suffered from eating disorders or if running itself causes eating disorders. As many things are, the answer isn’t as black and white as I suspected. The answer to both questions is yes. Women who suffer from eating disorders often are perfectionists who may seek rigid and even obsessive control over aspects of their lives. Women with ED are often described as “competitive” and “driven to succeed.” You see where I’m going with this. Long distance runners tend to have similar personality traits. Some have linked running with a need for control, another personality trait consistent with sufferers of eating disorders.

Because of these similarities, running might trigger eating disorders or at least contribute to them for some. The pressure to achieve and maintain one’s racing weight or the common belief that lighter equals faster can easily spiral out of control, leading to disordered eating. This is particularly a worry for women runners who already show obsessive and competitive personality traits.

There is much that could be said about the causes and prevention of eating disorders, and much has already been said, even here on this site (check out Gingko’s heartfelt post for more information). But when it comes to maintaining a lifetime love of running while recovering from ED over that same lifetime, we all could use a little help.

Olive holds her young daughter after a race
Finishing a race healthy and strong, holding one of the most important reasons to stay in recovery.

Running’s Effect on Recovery

I spoke to my fellow recovered Saltines and asked if they felt running helped or hurt their recovery. There were a variety of answers, but we agreed that the answer depended on how far along into recovery the runner is. Often disordered eating goes hand-in-hand with over-exercising, so those of us (like me!) who used running as a way to burn calories had to stop immediately during recovery.

One Salty said “my training was…my punishment. I was excited to have this plan in front of me that would force me to work out excessively.” Several of us stopped for years, knowing that we couldn’t fully heal from our disorders while running until we were able to untangle the web of “running = calorie burner” in our minds.

While running is often dangerous during recovery from an ED, once we’ve reached a point of significant healing, running can actually aid in our on-going recovery. One Saltine said “running helped me because I realized I had to fuel my body if I wanted to run well.”

Running, and fitness in general, can help the recovered patient to focus on the good the body can do rather that what it looks like or what size jeans fits on it. Running forces us to take care of ourselves if we want to perform well, in terms of food and appropriate rest, two things ED patients tend to neglect.

These days for me, running helps me focus on my self-worth in a way that doesn’t relate to my size. I feel good about myself because I’m a hard worker and I’m goal driven. I feel good about my body because it’s strong and my legs run fast. My bones are strong and injury-free, and my heart and lungs are part of a strong engine that carries me over many miles.

Most experts agree that the stage of recovery will determine if the patient is ready to run. But running at any stage of ED recovery is not without risk. One expert pointed out that women with a history of ED may claim they are working out for the health benefits and aren’t concerned with calorie burn, but may in fact using exercise to lose weight. The authors of this study gave a few signs that it might be time to cut back on running and check in with your therapist.

  • If you get annoyed when your runs are interrupted
  • If you feel bad when you’re unable to run a certain amount
  • If you feel that you have a problem with running
  • If you have friends and family that feel you overexercise

Tips for Recovery

So let’s assume you’ve worked through the psychological and physical affects of an eating disorder with the help of a professional. You’ve been cleared to start exercising by your doctors. You have no signs of the female athlete triad, get a regular-ish period and your bones are strong, and you are dedicated to maintaining a healthy relationship with food and exercise. What are some tips to staying on the straight and narrow?

Throw out the scale

If you haven’t done this already, you will find it to be both liberating and terrifying. If you are someone who has based their entire self-worth on what the scale says, you will find it nearly impossible to function without knowing your weight. But once you give it up, you will realize how little your weight matters. For a person with a history of eating disorders, there is no number with which you will be satisfied. In the midst of my ED I would look at what I now know to be a shockingly low number and think oh, just five more pounds and I’ll be good. There was no reason for wanting to lose five more pounds beyond the fact that I could. Breaking up with the scale was the single best thing I did for my recovery.

Know your triggers

Did you cope with stressful situations by controlling your eating and exercising? Is there a certain relationship in your life that causes you to regress? Make a mental note of these, and do your best to avoid them.

Of course, avoiding all stressful situations is impossible; sometimes you have to move, deal with the loss of someone you love, deal with a situation like a pregnancy when you will have to gain weight, or something else where you will be at high risk for a relapse. When you do feel stressed or at risk of relapsing, reach out to your support team and be ready to combat your negative thoughts.

I am often triggered by seeing pictures of myself. I over-scrutinize them and then have a tendency to start slipping into my old bad habits. I can’t stop people from taking my pictures, but, when they do, I try not to look at them very closely.

Monitor your friendships

Do you have a friend who is constantly talking about her appearance? Maybe she’s always talking about how fat her thighs are or how she needs to go on a diet? It might be time to distance yourself from that friend. She may be a lovely person otherwise, but she has some self-esteem issues she needs to work out before you can have a healthy relationship. If you continue the friendship, establish some boundaries by saying things like “I think you’re beautiful, but hearing you talk about how fat you think you are is very triggering for me. Please stop.” Even now, 12 years after my diagnosis, I can’t hear someone say they think they’re fat without assuming they mean I’m fat too.

Sorry, Regina, we can't be friends. And you can't sit with us. (Photo courtesy http://thoughtcatalog.com/nico-lang/2013/02/40-mean-girls-quotes-that-make-everyday-life-worth-living/)
Sorry, Regina, we can’t be friends. And you can’t sit with us.

Check out your media influences

I joined Instagram a few months ago, and there are some people I’ve had to immediately unfollow. I can’t look at images with #fitspo #gymrat or anything similar, and I had a few friends that regularly post gym selfies and food pictures that I had to unfollow. One Instagram friend posted a few pictures of the scale with her actual weight on it and I hit “unfollow” on that one right away.  There are several healthy living blogs that regularly post their food diaries or weights and I’ve stopped looking at those as well. If there’s a media source that makes you feel self-critical, unfollow it. You’re not missing anything.

***

Eating disorders are notoriously tough to overcome. But many women runners have recovered and gone on to live productive, healthy lives.

If you are struggling and need help, you are not alone. You can contact the National Eating Disorder Association via phone, text, or online chat to talk to someone and start your road to recovery.

Are you recovering from ED, diagnosed or otherwise? How has running helped your recovery? Any other tips to maintain a healthy relationship with your body while you train?

I am a stay at home mom and group fitness instructor from South Texas. I love reading, wine, and travel. I write about trends, injury prevention and maintenance, and satire. I am training to break 1:30 in the half marathon sometime soon, and for the 2017 Boston Marathon.

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26 comments

  1. I started running a few years after “recovering” from my ED. I use quotation marks because I don’t feel like it’s ever going to be totally gone, it’s a matter of who is stronger me or that evil voice. Running definitely helps recovery for me. Although in reading those four signs, I would say yes to the first two. I’m currently not running at all due to injury – which is a whole different mental game, lol. But even in the throws of marathon training, just before I had to accept the fact that I had to defer my entry, I had not changed anything about my eating habits. I wasn’t adding more fuel – before/during/or after. I think I was afraid. No, I know I was afraid. It’s embarrassing admitting that, rationally I know better, but I’m hoping by reading it it will keep me accountable. I’ve learned a lot through my first (failed) marathon training. I’m hoping to learn from the mistakes and come out stronger is 2017.

    1. I wish more people were willing/able/comfortable to open up and talk about how these things all work together – the “my rational mind knows I need more fuel” vs. the old habits and voices of an ED – seriously difficult things. It shouldn’t be embarrassing and yet it always feels that way. Injuries teach us important things if we can listen, too. Good luck!

  2. 100% believe that running helps. As long as I’m training and need healthy amounts of fuel, I’m fine. The same concept with having and nursing children. It was outside of these that I had issues. I think all sports help with disordered eating because you learn to view your body from an athlete’s perspective and that means fueling, strong muscles and health as opposed to starving, low muscle volume and dangerously low weight and body fat. Another thing that helped me was going from my insulated, minuscule, first cross country team where varsity practically competed to be the thinnest, to a team where there were many body types that were fast. As a coach I make sure I never bring up the “thin is fast” myth and I squelch it as soon as I hear it. Because it isn’t true and it isn’t healthy.

    1. I agree with you. That’s why I have a hard time with the concept of “racing weight,” which I have heard discussed among recreational (as in non-elite) runners a lot lately.

      1. I’ve heard the “racing weight” concept too. Honestly, the only way someone will be able to determine an accurate racing weight is by working with doctors and nutritionists to find their ideal. Only a few professional runners have affordable access to this, let alone recreational runners! I’ve seen a lot of people plug into those calculators and come out with ridiculously low weights. Way underweight for most. For most body types that extreme low weight is not sustainable or healthy and won’t do anything but harm to athletic performance in the long run.

    2. I agree that the concept of ‘racing weight’ and ‘thin is fast’ are both untrue and unhealthy – and one does not follow from the other. Rather, in most cases, an elite athlete’s weight when she races is the by-product of a strong and healthy training cycle.
      It’s not just running. I used to do ballet, and boy can that be a triggering environment. But branching out to modern dance taught me quite clearly that it doesn’t logically follow that thin => better dancer. Work on the artistry, fuel well, and your body sculpts itself so that you *will* look beautiful (and this encompasses a huge range of body types) while dancing.

      1. I always say I don’t run for extreme hotness, my extreme hotness is just a nice side effect of my running. (I’m joking about myself, but the underlying point is an observable phenomenon)

      2. The figure skating world is very similar to this Mango! That is where my problems started. Extreme focus on thinness.

  3. Don’t be embarrassed! Recovery is so hard, and then adding in marathon training makes it even tougher. I think it’s totally normal to be afraid of adding in more fuel when your brain has been telling you fuel=bad for so long. Also re: injury-one of the things we (fellow recovering Salties) agreed on is that injury is really tough for recovery and something we all struggled with. I’m sorry you’re injured!!

    Edit to add that this was a reply to Mina! I hit the wrong “reply” button.

  4. I was never diagnosed but was clearly struggling with an eating disorder when I was 14 and 15. Can I say what a huge relief it was to join track my sophomore year? I experienced exactly what Renee was talking about above. I instantly loved sport (up until that time I had very little exposure to organized sports) and immediately took to the idea that I wanted to be an athlete and from that point on I stopped fixating on consuming the minimum amount of calories I could will myself to consume (or not to consume). I also tend to start going back to unhealthy thought patterns when I’m injured and I understand that struggle, Mina. But it will pass. My body was so wrecked after mono just a few months ago and now I feel stronger and better about it than I did before. Have faith you’ll get through!

  5. As a teen and young adult, I never struggled with an eating disorder. But when I started running seriously in my late 30s and setting big goals for my races, I saw how easily I could slip into the beginnings of a disorder. I’m usually not one to weigh myself, but I do get on the scale during training cycles to see where I’m at. The racing weight concept does not help–I find myself calculating how many seconds I could shave off my marathon time if I was ‘just’ 2,3,4,5,6…pounds lighter. And then I begin to ponder my daily caloric output versus input; I have to be cognizant to NOT get pulled into this trap.

    My coach likes her athletes to keep spreadsheets with weekly weight, among other things, but I decided to forego this because I felt like it would only feed my natural obsessive tendencies.

  6. Great article! ! I think running can go both ways, I started running after I was dx with ed. It was something for me to focus on other than food. And I could not run unless I fueled my body, so for me it was definitely a learning experience!

  7. Thank you Olive for sharing your story. I became a slave to the scale a few years ago. I was weighing myself every day. I was so happy my weight was near by high school weight (ridiculous considering I was about 42 at the time.) I finally realized it was too much and I just wasn’t eating enough. I then switched to weighing myself ocassasionally. This year, I added more strength and cross training, not to lose weight but just to be stronger since I have had running injuries in the past. I was still weighing myself every now and then and several months ago, I decided to stop because the number on the scale was once again becoming important to me. I didn’t want the number on the scale to discourage me from continuing everything I was doing because all the extra cross and strength training I am doing is honestly to help me be a better and stronger runner, not to weigh what I weighed in high school. Ditching the scale was the best thing I did not just for me, but for my running too.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Adriana! I have points in time where I want to weigh myself. But if I’m not happy with the number, what would change? I can’t work out more or eat less without risking injury or getting sick. So I figure, why even know?

  8. Running definitely helped me change my perspective about my body and makes it harder for me to fall back into my disordered eating habits- partially because I am so hungry from high mileage it’s hard to ignore but also because I view food as fuel now, particularly after a tough workout. “Here, muscles, have some protein and carbs- you need to heal and get stronger!” I still have (many) moments where that old thinking arises (mostly when life is stressing me out and I want to control something) but when I am training hard and strong it is so much easier to tell that voice in my head berating my thighs to shut the f up.

    1. Yes, I’m so much more hungry now that I run high-mileage! Seeing fast splits has been more gratifying than seeing a low weight for me which helps too.

  9. Great post. Important topic. I love the work Lauren Fleshman is doing in this area, and the Embody Love Movement, too. I have run for my entire life, and running is wrapped up in so many different parts of my life. I don’t think of it as the cause or effect of anything. It does bring me joy, even when complicated. Of course, it is said that “The sweetest things become the most bitter by excess.”

  10. ED recovery is *so* hard. For me it took four years to be confident that I was in a place to look after/give my body what it needed to be able to add running back into the mix. Was this a ridiculously long time, yes – and it was awful. But, I am so glad I took this time as I can count on one hand the ‘old Pesto’ thoughts that I’ve had (and automatically filtered into the ignore section of my brain) since December. Not just that, but now I am insanely happy and love running. A couple of times during those four years I tried to run and felt myself slipping into old habits, and quickly. That was my cue that I was not ready and I would immediately put the shoes away. I am so thankful to be healthy and running strong today! I agree with you and Pimento – seeing good workout splits and feeling great is so much better than a number on a scale.

  11. Great article and with some solid advice. Only issue I take with it is the opening paragraph- the minimizing of the seriousness of an eating disorder, playing it off like it’s common and recovery from is common. “My story isn’t unique or all that remarkable.” “Doesn’t get a period for six years…” Come on, now. That is serious, dangerous, and cannot and should not be minimized to that kind of language. I know of one runner, and that’s myself, that also didn’t have my period for six years. My doctors and therapists told me that was extremely harmful for my body and my bone structure and it was a very serious situation and uncommon even for anorexia to go that long without a period. I just wanted you to please recognize that.

    I think for people who don’t know much about eating disorders or are at risk of developing one, it makes it sound like it’s easy to get through or that it’s not that bad. While there is valuable information in your article, I just had to express that I feel the first paragraph is not accurately reflecting the dangerous, serious nature of an eating disorder. Congratulations, though, on being recovered and living a beautiful, wholesome life. I’m always available to chat on the subject. Eating disorder awareness and recovery, particularly in runners and athletes, is something I’m very passionate about.

    1. Excellent point, Jenny! I think that Olive has a bit of a self-deprecating tone that we here all know, but from the outside might not be visible. But now that you point it out, I can see how it might sound and could come off that way. I’m so glad you pointed it out so we can discuss this point more!

    2. I can see your point Jenny, I think it’s important not to downplay common things into making it sound like just because they are common they aren’t still serious. Example: Most studies show 1 in 4 women experience a miscarriage. Just because it’s common doesn’t mean that it isn’t incredibly hard, serious, and should be talked about and not a taboo subject. I bring that point up, as I don’t have experience with an ED but do with the later- and sometimes I could see how frustrating it is to have something so big downplayed.

      BUT, I will also add from another perspective I think Olive’s first paragraph brings to light the point of how easy it could be to go from “trying to lose weight” to taking it way too far very easily. If anything it shows the serious and danger of eating disorders because to me, I read that as “Losing weight and the methods you choose can be a really slippery slope to other heath problems that can affect you the rest of your life, or even kill you”. At first it seems so innocent as a ploy to lose weight and be in control, but the sentence that goes from that and into 6 years without a period in simply a few words- to me that shows the danger of how easy it can be to take something little, way too far. I didn’t read it as, it’s so easy to get through (even as someone with limited ED knowledge)…I read it as it can be easier than you think to take something too far and have it be dangerous and Olive is lucky that she was able to come out on the other side because of that.

    3. Hi Jenny! Thanks for reading! Please know that in no way did I mean to trivialize or minimize eating disorders. I simply meant that my story was not unique to women runners-as the paragraphs that follow illustrate, many women runners deal with eating disorders in some form. What started very innocently (trying to lose a few lbs) morphed into something serious, and while there was certainly more to my story (years of therapy, hospital visits), the focus of this post was runners after recovery and so these facts were mostly glossed over. I apologize of that was triggering or upsetting to you, it certainly wasn’t my intention.

      Of course it is very dangerous to not get your period for a long period of time. It’s been written about here-see this post for more info: https://www.saltyrunning.com/completing-the-female-athlete-triad-spotlight-on-amenorrhea/

      Gingko wrote more about running with an eating disorder here: https://www.saltyrunning.com/running-with-an-eating-disorder/