In the community of female athletes, especially female runners, an epidemic known as the female athlete triad is gaining headlines. The presence of the triad — a condition characterized by energy deficiency, absent or irregular menstrual cycles and reduced bone density — can almost always be credited to the same culprit: disordered eating.
Running plays a very integrated role in my own life; it has since seventh grade, when I began my first season of cross country. Until my first cross country meet, I had never been good at sports. Until then, I’d never known the feeling of holding a blue ribbon between my fingers. I’d never known what it was like to compete and, more so, to win.
The fall of 2012 changed all of that. Being one of the top runners on my middle school cross country team, I tasted victory for the first time in the world of sports. I dipped my toes in athleticism, and I loved the result.
Running came easy to me for the first two years, but as I grew older, I experienced a drastic change: I lost my ability to run with ease. I was one of the slowest girls walking onto my high school cross country and track teams. I hated losing. I hated every second of it, and I attributed that hatred to my new womanly curves.
I convinced myself that they were holding me back from meeting my full potential as a runner, and I acted on the unwanted thoughts which plagued my mind every day. The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I ran every chance I got, and I avoided meals wherever possible.
I told myself that slimmer meant faster, and faster meant perfection. But I had a long track record of being a perfectionist, and I should’ve known that being a perfectionist meant knowing that perfection was something that could never be attained. Deep down, I knew my actions held the potential to eventually hurt my career as an athlete, but I couldn’t foresee how they would change me as a person.
I lost about five pounds the summer going into my sophomore year, and I went into the cross country season feeling like a failure because I hadn’t lost more. My times plummeted, and where my confidence should’ve soared, it sunk.
In order to earn my varsity letter that year, I needed to run five seconds faster than I did in my last race of the season. Five seconds shouldn’t have meant as much to me as it did. It shouldn’t have been more than a missed opportunity. But to me, five seconds was everything.
Five seconds was proof that I hadn’t contributed to my team. Five seconds was evidence that I hadn’t worked hard enough. Five seconds could be attributed to one pound too many clinging to my tired bones, or so my eating disorder made me believe.
Yet again, I made my training more rigorous, and I restricted my caloric intake. I ran seven days a week, and for as long as I could each day.
For breakfast, when I was forced to eat it under the watchful eyes of my parents, I had a few Cheerios. On the days they weren’t watching, I skipped it all together. Lunch was easy to avoid — with no one watching or questioning me, I simply didn’t eat. As much as I hated dinner, I was forced to eat at home with my family. Still, nothing stopped me from making my portion sizes as small as they possibly could be and skipping snacks altogether.
That winter, in the course of two months, I lost 20 pounds when I really didn’t have much weight to lose. My parents began to notice, and with my increased training, they took action immediately and forced me to up my caloric intake. It upset my mentality greatly, and I argued with them about it constantly, not realizing they were only trying to help me avoid where my path was inevitably leading me.
Track season my sophomore year, my times dipped again, but not enough for me. I was a varsity athlete now, no longer JV. But I wanted more. I wanted to help my team out as much as I possibly could. I no longer cared about victory for just myself. Now, I saw my potential to contribute to our team winnings as well.
Again, my training increased and calories decreased, now less than ever. When I weighed myself each week, watching the numbers drop on the scale became a game, one which got my heart racing. I loved watching the numbers plummet almost as much as I loved watching the seconds tick away on the clock at a meet when I knew I was going to get a personal record (PR).
My game quickly became dangerous, and slowly it detached itself from my running career. Yes, I was still under the false impression that skinnier equated with faster, but now it was more than that. Now, it was an unhealthy obsession, one which I would later find out was manifesting itself in the form of my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which I had been diagnosed with at eight years old.
When it comes to OCD, compulsions are actions which are driven by constant, overwhelming thoughts known as obsessions. I obsessively thought about food all day, every day. I brainstormed secretive ways to avoid eating and manipulate my support system into thinking that I had. I devised plans to over exercise in order to burn off even more than just the few calories that entered my system.
Driven by my twisted thoughts, I checked the number of steps I took each day, sometimes every few minutes. Coupled with my OCD, my eating disorder became all-consuming. That, however, was beside the point, at least in my mind.
The point to me was that, at 16 years old, I was hitting some of the fastest times in my high school’s history. I was the second fastest or fastest girl on my team depending on the meet, and my cross country team was headed to the state championship at Michigan International Speedway.
The same week of states, I learned that my coach had approached my mom earlier that season, asking if I was okay because I looked emaciated. In August, when he had asked, I stood around 110 pounds. By the time states rolled around, I was 98 pounds, and, in my mind, I still wasn’t good enough.
My story continues, but I won’t relate every detail; there are too many to recount them all. I continue to fight against my eating disorder each and every day. As an athlete, nutrition is crucial to my performance, and while logically I know that, the part of my brain manifested by my OCD and my eating disorder can’t always seem to grasp that concept.
I’ve clocked in years of therapy and a summer working diligently with a nutritionist to overcome my unhealthy mentality, but the battle still continues. I know that this is a war I’m going to have to wage for the rest of my life, but I also know that my OCD and my eating disorder only have the power over me that I allow them to have. Yes, I may face intrusive thoughts of wanting to skip meals or snacks, but as long as I force myself to eat despite the voice begging me not to, I am in control; my psychological disorders are not.
Why am I telling you this? Why should you care? I’m one person in a world of seven billion. Yes, I have a story to tell, but so does everyone else.
In the United States alone, an estimated 30 million people, or 10 percent of the general population, suffer from an eating disorder of some kind. Among athletes, studies attempting to measure this same statistic resulted in mixed conclusions, but it is speculated that disordered eating is much more pervasive. Why? While the reason is not yet certain, there are many possibilities.
The main explanation is that in athletes, eating disorders can be much harder to diagnose. In order to identify the problem, an individual must first admit that there is one. Athletes who think that their unhealthy eating patterns are helping their performance are much more likely to be unwilling to admit that there is an issue. Or, they might be unknowing of its existence altogether if it is benefiting their performance.
The concept of improper nutrition helping performance seems twisted and illogical, but more often than not, athletes do see improved performance at first after a dangerous cycle of disordered eating emerges. The reason why runners, especially, see so much improvement after first losing weight is because they have less mass to carry while running, thereby allowing them to hit faster times. In turn, this leads them to develop the mindset that skinnier equates with faster.
As their weight drops, their times will follow, but only for so long. At a certain point, denying the body the calories it needs to sustain long miles can’t lead to anything but injury. Protein is needed for muscle repair, and if the body does not receive it, muscles begin to deteriorate. Calcium is needed for healthy bones, and if the body does not receive it, osteoporosis and stress fractures become inevitable.
Breaking out of the cycle of disordered eating is both mentally and physically challenging. Once runners in particular have developed the mindset of skinnier equating with faster, putting on weight becomes a hindrance to their perceived ability to hit their best times; after putting on a couple pounds, they may no longer feel they have the ability to run their fastest.
While the link between my OCD and my eating disorder might be more idiosyncratic, issues with getting proper nutrition are more than common in athletes, especially in the community of female runners.
At first, my times got faster. For a long while, they did. My senior year of high school, though, I was diagnosed with anemia, or low blood iron. The diagnosis, undoubtedly attributed to my eating disorder, ended my season. Almost two years later, I’m still in the process of bouncing back from it.
My freshman year track season here at Albion began with the same mistakes of intentionally underfueling and ended with the same result of anemia. Currently, I have a pinched nerve in my back, which is recovering slowly but surely. Even that, I’ve found with extensive research, may have a connection to certain nutritional deficiencies. Having recovered from two bouts of anemia and losing two seasons of running, I’m more determined than ever to fix my current injury and prevent another case of a self-induced illness.
With proper treatment, the right support system and, most importantly, a healthy mindset, recovery is attainable one step at a time. Treatment is centered around developing a more logical mindset when it comes to food. Known as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), this is the most commonly used and effective treatment for eating disorders.
For runners in particular, this form of therapy is especially helpful. CBT for athletes focuses on education about proper nutrition, weight management and other basic information about food and eating disorders. Unlike CBT for non-athletes who struggle with eating disorders, this form of CBT has an additional component.
For athletes, a central component to CBT is the constant reminder that there are more important things in life than reading a shockingly low number when they step on the scale. One of those things is their athletics. Focusing on running, which may have originally aided in the culmination of their disorder, can become one of the biggest steps in their recovery —they don’t want their downfalls as athletes to be attributed to something they know they can gain control of.
Lauren Fleshman, former American track and field athlete, said it best in a letter she wrote to her past self. After struggling for years with balancing disordered eating and her running career, Fleshman finally came to the conclusion that her constant mental battles about food were hurting her more than they were helping her.
“If you starve your body, attempt to outsmart it, you will suffer,” she wrote. “You will get faster at first. And then you will get injured. And injured. And injured.”
Fleshman is spot on. Even if the effects of improper fueling are not felt at first, they will inevitably be felt in the future – it’s a slow demise, a twisted system where the one thing that makes you better for the longest time holds the capability to single-handedly ensure your downfall as an athlete at any moment in time.
Believe it or not, I’m one of the lucky ones. With all that I’ve put my body through and continue to put it through, by all means I should’ve been met with far worse consequences. There’s no good explanation for why I haven’t had a series of stress fractures, or any of the common, more severe injuries related to improper nutrition. It’s pure luck.
I’m writing this article because, after years of therapy and feeling like I was going through all of my struggles completely alone, after years of shame, embarrassment, and hiding, I’ve finally realized that I’d rather do something productive with my issues. Holding them locked in my heart helps no one. Writing about them might just help someone, anyone, going through the same thing.
Photo by James Revenaugh