“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.
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.
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?