How to talk to a runner about eating disorders

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We’ve all met the odd runner who strikes us with concern – the person pounding the gym treadmill each morning, your running club friend looking frail at a race start line or a colleague unfalteringly pushing themselves to exhaustion. But at what point should you say something?

“Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, so it's not just the stick thin people we should worry about,” says Ilona Burton, a 29-year-old marathon runner who’s battled eating disorders since childhood. “It's more about lifestyle. Is someone obsessing about food and exercise? Do they get anxious when their plans to train fall through? Have they started making excuses to get out of meetings or social events? It's when exercise takes over someone's life that it's time to worry.”

If this rings true for a runner you know, brush up on the following dos and don’ts before broaching the subject with them.

Do

Speak out

You may find it difficult or uncomfortable to bring up the subject of eating disorders, but the person you’re speaking to could really appreciate it. “From my experience EDs can make you feel very isolated and alone,” says Tom Fairbrother, a sub-elite runner who battled bulimia. “Just knowing that someone is thinking of you can be useful and comforting.”

Be patient

“You have to understand that the illness wants this person to remain ill and they'll feel guilty to 'giving in' in any way,” says Ilona. “But there will be a part of them that is tired, that is crying out to have this thing taken away, that wants to accept help. The only way to get through is to keep trying. Show you care and that you're worried. You might be angry and frustrated, but showing that is unlikely to make the situation any easier and will more than likely make the person close up even more.”

Pick your moment

Ilona recommends bringing the topic up somewhere quiet, where there are unlikely to be interruptions. “It could be a good idea to text or email first, but as long as you are sincere, straight and show you care, at the right time, and with time, there will be a response you can work with.”

Present your evidence

Let the person know the reasons you are concerned – perhaps they’ve begun making excuses to avoid eating with you, or have ramped up their training in spite of injury or illness. Coralie Frost, who struggled with anorexia throughout her teenage years and university, suggests using photos to illustrate why you're worried. “It is difficult to admit to yourself that you have an eating disorder. You can’t necessarily see what’s happening, but others can. Friends approached the subject by showcasing photos of how I had changed over a year rather than accusing me of having an eating disorder.”

Don’t

‘Out’ them

This isn’t the time for a mass intervention. “Even if you are concerned they might have an eating disorder, do not ‘out’ them in friendship groups until they are ready to talk about it,” says Coralie. “It can make them feel exposed, vulnerable and isolated.”

Assume they see things the same way that you do

“The person you're speaking to could be in complete denial themselves, not recognising that they have a problem at all, or if they do, it's their little secret; eating disorders are mental illnesses and sufferers will defend themselves to the last breath,“ says Ilona. “They may snap, be angry, deny everything, insist they're fine or completely ignore you.” Be patient and recognise that their anger and frustration is a result of the illness, not a personal attack on you.

Blame it on the media

“The least helpful thing someone has ever said was ‘perhaps you should stop reading glossy magazines if you’re influenced by them,’” says Coralie. “It made me feel like they were dismissing the illness, but it shows the lack of awareness of eating disorders.” Remember that eating disorders are a complex psychological illness and that someone’s weight, behaviour and appearance are a symptom of this.

Tell them to stop outright

“If possible, the best thing to do is get to a point where you can find a compromise, encouraging the person to exercise marginally less and work back a little at a time. The worst advice to give someone you think may be over-exercising is to quit altogether. Telling them ‘You just need to stop this’ simply won't work," warns Ilona. "What they are doing is using exercise as a coping method or method of control (even though it's likely out of control), and taking this away is likely to cause more harm than good. The only time this approach should be used is if there is a physical danger.”


Read more about the symptoms of eating disorders here. If you are concerned for yourself, please contact your GP or seek advice from the Beat website.