Disordered Eating: Running on Empty

Discover how the pressures of performance and self image can take you across the line from smart nutrition to damaging ‘disordered eating’

by Caleb Daniloff

disordered eating running

While I wouldn’t claim any records, I finished the marathon without walking. I broke the tape at 4:20, a disappointment considering the rigours of my training.

As I’d slogged up the hilly course, my feet feeling laced in concrete blocks, more than once I wondered if there had been too much oil in my pasta.

But curiously, after staggering through the crowd of finishers, a medal bouncing against my Gatorade-soaked shirt, all I wanted was a burger. Just like that, I stopped counting fat grams and calories and watched the pounds start checking back in. I ran a second marathon five weeks later, coasting on my earlier training, and shaved almost 16 minutes off my time. I was elated, but also confused. Weren’t weight and speed inextricably linked?

“Sometimes a runner will have a breakthrough, and they’ll credit it to losing weight when it might be the past six months of training or a certain maturity in their running,” says Welzel. “The thing that’s identifiable is the weight loss, but  that may have just been a small piece.”

There could be something else at play beneath the surface of cutting calories and shaving seconds, says Kara Bazzi, clinical director of Opal, an eating disorders clinic. “Many athletes with disordered eating wouldn’t want to admit this, but there’s this sense of self-righteousness – they can accomplish a six-minute-mile pace or 20-mile run while others can’t. There’s part of them that’s threatened to be average. That mentality is a strong force to reckon with.”

Bazzi speaks from experience, as a runner whose personal struggle with disordered eating began in her first year at university. By mid season, she was one of the fastest on her team, thanks to drastic cuts in her diet. “I was getting lighter, then faster,” says Bazzi. “I saw big results. You can run pretty well for about a year under a highly restrictive diet, but then your body breaks down.” A stress fracture ended her competitive career, her bones stripped of nutrients.

Less isn't more

Bazzi and other experts agree that the volume needs to be turned up on the key message that less isn’t more when it comes to eating and running. Welzel remembers once, when she was eating fries and hoisting a beer, a recreational runner said to her, “I thought you guys just ate lettuce.” She was taken aback. “Hard workouts need to be replenished. Healthy eating isn’t the same as eating less,” says Welzel.
Even though I was back on steak and chips, my marathon training had left some sticky residue. I still felt flashes of anger when my Garmin displayed anything above 9:15min/mile. I’d instantly analyse everything on my menu from the day before and curse myself. Why had I convinced myself that stopping to walk during a race, even for fluids, was for pansies? Why would not breaking four hours translate to failure?

I began to wonder if there were some unresolved personal issues that I’d allowed the digits, the food rules and the rigid routine, to tamp down. I was always hard on myself, perhaps threatened to be average as Bazzi said. I loved running, so why did I set out with one arm whipping my own back?

As I found myself registering for more marathons, I vowed to look in the mirror with a renewed consciousness and to leave the Garmin at home once in a while. It was strange at first. I felt a bit unmoored, a bit aimless. But I became more aware of the feel of the run and started looking around like I used to before I began pinning on bib numbers. With the taste of sweat on my lips, I understood the obsessiveness, and the yielding David Proctor was talking about. More and more, I run for the joy rather than the PB; to hear not the numbers in my ears, but the wind.

Weighty Issues

How your weight impacts your run – and your health – according to exercise scientist Dr Joseph Ciccolo

Overweight: Carrying excess weight puts pressure on your joints and can lead to injuries. Gradually increase weekly mileage to avoid excess strain.

Lightly overweight: You may not be able to chase down a PB if you’re carrying extra weight, but you’ll certainly have the energy to run hard and you are at little

Average weight: For most runners, this is the place to be. With proper training, your risk of injury is low and you should feel energetic, fast and emotionally balanced.

Slightly underweight: Your undernourished bones make stress fractures more likely. You’ll fatigue earlier during runs and you may suffer from post-run headaches.

Underweight: When your body is undernourished, your pace suffers as your body breaks down muscle for energy. Loss of muscle also disrupts hormone function.

Drastically underweight: Aside from the psychiatric issues, the stress on your heart means you’re at risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Rules Made for Breaking

When unhealthy practices become habits, you put your wellbeing at risk, says sports dietitian Suzanne Girard Eberle. Here are common-but-damaging food ‘rules’ to avoid

1. Eating energy bars as meals
Energy bars are a convenient way to supplement your nutrition – but not replace meals. “It’s best to get calories from whole foods,” says Eberle. Many bars are enriched with vitamins, but they don’t provide the nutritional quality of real food.

2. Avoiding fat or carbs
Avoiding certain ingredients is common, whether it’s for health or personal reasons. But if you’re axing entire food groups to lose weight, tread carefully. “It makes you prone to injury and can compromise the immune system,” says Eberle.

3. Timing your meals like mile splits
So you like your routine of eating lunch at 1pm. So what? “It’s a problem if you’re restricting food when you are hungry,” says Eberle. Give your body food when it needs it, or you’ll run slower and fatigue quicker.

4. Logging calories as meticulously as mileage
Sometimes your body requires more fuel. If you deprive yourself, you will risk a host of running-related health issues. So for goodness’ sake, cut yourself some slack. Your body will thank you.

5. Dodging invitatiuons to social occasions
Consistently avoiding your neighbours’ barbecues or your friends’ dinner parties for fear of not being able to control the menu can evolve into an unhealthy relationship with food, says Eberle.

6. Not fuelling long runs
Purposefully not fuelling on the run to try to burn more calories and lose weight is self-defeating. If you don’t feed your body properly before, during and after long training runs, says Eberle, you’re less likely to have a good quality performance.

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Discuss this article

wow,quite a story.All the best for the future and anyone else with eating disorders.

Posted: 19/11/2013 at 12:33

A very fine line I'd say. After being poked fun at for being "fat" and going from 13st to 10st about 6 years ago - it's why I started running (or jogging at the time!)

However I've found as I've taken training more seriously I want to be healthy and well fuelled so the opposte applies. I would say I'm cautious about what I eat rather than gorging on anything you'd put in front of me as I used to!

Posted: 19/11/2013 at 13:04

What an eye-opening article! In contrast to the lettuce comment in the article, I assumed that elite athletes carefully prescribed everything that they ate to maximise their performance - it's scary to think that they could get an eating disorder, and even scarier to realise that this could actually provide a short-term boost to their performance.

For us mere mortals, I'd guess most just want to be a healthy weight, while runners will also consider how much weight they really want to carry around in a race for e.g. 26.2 miles. Unfortunately, as this personal and honest article highlights, there is so much misinformation around diet and nutrition that it's incredibly easy for an amateur to get it very, very wrong.

Posted: 20/11/2013 at 10:47

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