Who is affected by Eating Disorders in the Running Community?

Running. For some, this word in itself brings thoughts of agony, something that should only be done if absolutely necessary. For others however, running is a form of pleasure or escape, a source of great strength and empowerment. The sport of running can take a variety of forms, from track sprints, trail running and leisurely jogs to half marathons, marathons and ultra marathons; running can be considered a leisurely or competitive sport. While running is known to have numerous physical and mental health benefits, there are concerns about body image and eating disorders within the running community. For many in this community, issues surrounding body image cause more queasiness than lining up at the race start line. All too often, we hear shy runners feeling like they will be judged for their body type by more experienced runners. Age-old myths surrounding the ideal runner’s body or the idea that slim builds lead to fast times, have led a large group of people in the running community to feel inadequate. The running fashion industry has also lead a lot of runners to feel inadequate about their body and most running clothes are tight fitting and only are available in certain sizes, usually sizes that are designed to fit the typical runner’s build.

Anyone involved in athletics knows firsthand that eating disorders are active in the sport culture and it cannot be ignored. Just like the recent attention to concussions in the last five years, this is a serious issue. The pressure to look a certain way can lead to a distorted body image, and this mind-set is common among endurance athletes who are clinically diagnosed with eating disorders or struggle with disordered eating, defined as subclinical eating disorder behavior. Adhering to a restrictive diet and arbitrary weight goals can have both short- and long-term effects. Even if athletes see their times drop, doctors warn about the damage a low-calorie diet, purging or binge eating can do to a person’s body, all of which can cause an individual’s energy level to drop or lead to growth and development issues, depression, and impaired judgment.

A sport in isolation

Long distance running is unique in the sense that it is a sport performed in isolation. Performance is completely hinged on the individual that is running, thus increasing the demands and drive for perfectionism that an athlete may experience. The nature of long distance running is one that can become completely agreeable with an eating disorder; however, this can be missed among coaches and parents, as behaviors may be mistaken for the demand of the sport. Approximately 30 million adults in the United States suffer from an eating disorder and although binge eating disorder is the most common, the most deadly eating disorder and mental health disorder is anorexia nervosa. Unfortunately the stigma associated with eating disorders in the running culture has discouraged many athletes and coaches from seeking help and speaking out.

How friends, family and coaches can help

Early intervention can play a tremendous role in recovery, preventing an athlete from experiencing many of the dangerous consequences that result from having an eating disorder. If you are a parent, coach, or loved one of a long distance athlete, it is important to be aware of these risk factors, which may indicate early signs of an eating disorder.

Signs to Look For:

  • Increased isolation
  • More frequent occurrences of injuries, such as sprains or muscle strains
  • Decreased concentration, coordination, and energy
  • Increased fatigue, low energy
  • Decreased social interaction with coaches and teammates
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Physical complaints, such as light-headedness, muscle aches, dizziness
  • Prolonging training beyond what is required for sport
  • Continued training, even when sick or injured