Eating disorders are common among runners of all ages, but as the pressure to perform increases, so does the pressure to lose weight, to "optimize performance," or simply to "look like a runner." Research has shown that nearly 47% of elite female athletes in “leanness sports” — ones that emphasize size, such as running, rowing, or gymnastics — have experienced eating disorders. Let's pause for a minute to acknowledge that half is an outrageously large percentage. In comparison, 21% of non-elite athletes experienced eating disorders, which is still incredibly, egregiously high. The pressure to perform and the desire to be lean go hand-in-hand, but too often, athletes push past healthy weight ranges. Performances suffer. Injuries occur. Mental health and well-being decline. And the passion that lead us to the sport in the first place wanes dramatically.
While eating disorders are more common in women, plenty of men suffer too. Rationally, we think losing weight makes sense. We run faster when we're lighter, to a point. Too many of us, however, push beyond that point thinking more is better. Worse yet, the culture of competitive athletics often directs us into this harmful way of thinking.
In this interview with Run Spirited, I talk briefly about how one college coach told me I'd be faster if I lost 20 pounds. At the time, I wasn't anywhere close to being heavy. His direction contributed to my eating disorder, but didn't cause it; his criticism simply deepened what was already there. I don't harbor any anger or ill will toward him either, I'm just here to say that unduly focusing on weight is lazy coaching. All he did was look at me and decide that my body needed an overhaul. This type of mindset is so prevalent in the running community that weight is often the first thing we pinpoint as problematic, when dozens of other factors (rest, mechanics, training load, iron levels, insufficient nutrition, stress, etc) may be at play.
When coaches and athletes focus so heavily on body weight, no weight becomes low enough. Weight, by the way, isn't a perfect, or even good, indicator of health, especially when we're talking about the weight of an already fit athlete. Perhaps the most damning part of my own experience was that my coaches weren't qualified to dispense advice about weight or nutrition. They weren't food or nutrition experts, they were training experts and instead of leveraging the help of dietitians or nutritionists, they simply told me, and many others, that shedding pounds would produce faster times. The correlation, egregiously drawn as it was, simplified the complexity of human biology to: less is better. The more accurate correlation could be: less is weaker, less is injured, less is unsustainable.
I'm writing from personal experience, but my experience has been replicated a million times over in runners from middles school ages all the way up to Olympians. Eating disorders and extreme weight loss are not necessary to run fast. It's simply not true. But for too many runners, disordered eating, weight loss, and injuries are a harmful and frustrating rite of passage. Many of us come out the other side stronger and wiser. Some of us come out the other side but give up the sport of running entirely. Worse yet, some of us don't make it out at all. Eating disorders are harmful and deadly. A running culture that perpetuates poor mental and physical health is the tragic underbelly of a sport that brings joy to millions of people.
There are simple, implementable solutions that any coach, school, or individual can take to ensure healthy, happy, and fast athletes. First, enlist the help of sports psychologists and dietitians. These professionals can help athletes understand and meet their energy needs and cope with the mental stress and anxiety that often accompany competition.
Second, coaches and athletes need to engage in open and honest communication. Many of my teammates fell into disordered eating patterns, and it became normalized. We mimicked each other in finding low-calorie food, or in restricting. At the same time, I was also blessed to have supportive and concerned teammates, who openly talked about our coaches' focus on weight and dismantled the myths they perpetuated. I had teammates who expressed concern when I failed to eat, and sometimes, that's all it takes.
Finally, understand and recognize that runners are multi-faceted people. Most of us love this sport deeply and would like to continue running for a very long time. But we can't do that if we break our bodies or minds, if we sacrifice long-term health to be fast for one season or run one fast race. We need to play the long game, which means being patient, allowing our bodies to grow and change as they should, and realistically progressing our training. This approach results in consistent training, consistent performances, and consistently faster times.
I want to believe that collegiate/professional athletics and the sport of running is changing for the better. I think it is, thanks in part to the internet. There is increasing awareness and conversation around eating disorders and toxic athletic cultures, and that's an important first step. Anyone who wants to share their story has the platform to do so and that's unilaterally empowering. Instituting lasting change will be a longer, uphill battle but one that is well worth the fight.
P.S. Follow Lane 9 Project to learn more about eating disorders in athletes and to be inspired by its three badass founders: Heather Caplan, Alexis Fairbanks and Samantha Strong. Follow Strong Runner Chicks and listen to their podcast to hear directly from runners themselves. Follow the Running in Silence blog/book, by eating disorder activist and all around amazing human, Rachael Steil. And finally, read Andrea Walkonen's tips for runners with eating disorders, HERE.