Three Women, One Issue: Eating Disorders & the Toxic Culture Women’s Distance Running Has Created
TW: Eating Disorders
“I would go to school and would have nobody to sit with at lunch so I would go to the library and there is no eating in the library, so I would go to practice after eating nothing all day,” explained a high school senior, who prefers to stay anonymous for privacy concerns.
“I would go the whole day without lunch, I would just throw it away,” said Quinnipiac University senior Shannon Goria.
“The biggest thing for me was restricting my lunch at school because that is when my family was not there,” said Springfield College senior Aly Coyle. “It seemed like a lot of other girls were doing that too.”
Three girls, one issue, and very similar experiences: an eating disorder that almost cost them not only their running careers, but their lives.
While none of these young women know each other, they all recalled the exact same experience at school lunch. An experience that culminated into a physically and mentally exhausting journey fighting an eating disorder that isn’t necessarily unheard of in women’s distance running.
In fact, according to Global Sports Matter, almost 50 percent of female athletes in “leanness sports” have experienced eating disorders. But eating disorders are something that is not talked about enough to young female athletes, due to the encouragement of a “win at all costs” culture.
For all three women, disordered eating habits and behaviors, like restricting food groups, throwing away meals, and daily weigh-ins started from a young age. The idea of eating healthy and running fast became an obsession. In order to improve, all three athletes felt the pressure to lose weight. The ideal runner’s body proclaimed by society – a long and lean figure, was all they wanted, and they were willing to do anything to prove to themselves and the outside world that they were worthy female runners, even if it meant risking everything.
“I thought that was how I was supposed to look. People would say to me you are too thin, but I would say that’s just how my body is. I am a distance runner,” explained Goria. “That’s just how distance runners are and what they look like.”
“I always had the mentality that the runner’s body was skinny with abs, so I always was cautious of what I was eating,” said the anonymous senior.
“I thought what I was doing was normal,” said Coyle.
It was hard for others and themselves to see anything wrong with their habits as their times kept improving. Each athlete also found it easy to hide their restrictive behaviors. Tricking loved ones, teammates, and coaches became a way to mask the disorder that enforced the behaviors they enacted in hopes of improving as a runner.
“This behavior can be very sneaky and secretive, which was not who I was at all. I think what is so scary about eating disorders is how they completely change a person. It did a complete 360 on who I was.”
“I would wake up in the morning and try to trick my family. I would eat a small bowl of cereal, go the whole day without lunch, eat nothing before practice, get home and would eat the whole dinner to prove to my family that I was eating, and then maybe something small at night,” continued Goria.
The skinny-equals-fast mentality felt impossible to break, especially when some of their best times were run when they were at their lowest weight. All three athletes eventually were able to realize this approach was not sustainable after they reached their breaking point, when it was almost too late.
“Doctors told me if I kept running I could have snapped my spine. That really freaked me out and was the main factor that made me realize maybe I should gain some weight,” said Goria.
“Sophomore year I had a stress fracture and that was kind of an eye-opener to me that I needed to start taking care of myself more,” explained Coyle.
Female athletes who struggle with eating disorders also tend to show symptoms of the Female Athlete Triad, which Goria, Coyle, and the anonymous senior experienced. Global Sports Matter defines the Female Athlete Triad as “an interrelationship between menstrual dysfunction, low energy availability and decreased bone mineral density.” This is especially dangerous for women because it damages the hormone balance which is essential for bodily functions.
Disordered eating, bone injuries, and loss of a menstrual cycle are the three main contributors to the Female Athlete Triad. Goria, Coyle, and the high school senior realized that once their eating habits worsened, their period became irregular or bone injuries like stress reactions would keep reappearing.
Without solving the root of the problem, which in their case was disordered eating, their body would keep breaking down. This could have led to long term health issues like infertility.
For years, all three athletes were consumed by their eating disorder. Life became solely centered on running. Nothing else seemed to matter. An athlete identity was all they ever knew.
“I didn’t let myself enjoy life,” explained Goria.
“Running kind of was put into every other aspect of my life,'' said the senior. “I was definitely dealing with a lot of confidence and body image issues as well.”
“I really isolated myself from social situations,” explained Coyle.
A key problem with eating disorders is the combination of hiding habits and the toxic reinforcement of unhealthy ideas from coaches, mass media, and society. While nutrition and weight can be important indicators in a sport, an athlete’s success is imperative from a broader range of factors, such as their emotional and mental well-being.
“I understand that in running, fueling yourself properly is important but especially for a young high school athlete, it can be very triggering and bring you to places where you become obsessed with it,'' said the senior. “It should be talked about but not to the max that it is.”
“Ignoring toxic behaviors and encouraging them,” Goria explains, “isn’t uncommon in running. Winning and producing fast times are often labeled as the top priorities.”
“Sometimes it would be really frustrating that there would be people who were much more underweight than I was that were still allowed to practice so I still feel like it’s something people can get away with. I know girls who should not be running, but because they have not vocalized it, their problem then goes under the radar util something bad happens, which honestly is when it is too late,” continued Goria.
“I was kind of told by coaches to go on diets in ways,” explained the anonymous senior.
All three athletes have received treatment and have found a way to love running again in a healthy way. Not everyone who suffers from eating disorders however, has this same privilege.
Health.com reports that “The average cost of a hospital stay for a patient with an eating disorder is $19,400.” For those who don’t have health insurance, reliable transportation, or a support system of loved ones, treatment is much harder and relapse is much more likely.
Most recently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people who were hospitalized because of an eating disorder doubled, as well as a spike of more than 70 percent of reported calls and chats made to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), according to MyCentralOregon.com.
Non-profit organizations, like Project Heal, are working towards increased accessibility and affordability regarding treatment and recovery by offering treatment placement, insurance navigation and cash assistance programs.
Race, gender identity, and sex also play a role in the likelihood of recovering from an eating disorder. Project Heal reported that 38 percent of their applicants were members of the LGBTQ+ community and 20 percent were Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. (BIPOC) A likely explanation for this Project Heal report is that because anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are often intertwined with eating disorders, marginalized communities are at a greater risk for developing one.
The presence of more female coaches and role models in the sport has also shown to be more effective in creating an environment that is less performance and appearance focused according to The New York Times.
“I had one coach who was really amazing during my freshman track season,” the senior said about having a supportive female coach. “I opened up about everything to her and she really helped me. She definitely helped me keep my love for running.”
Coyle and Goria explained habits and approaches to recovery that have helped them, as well as what can be done to fix the damaged system that has become reality in the sport of running.
Education and knowledge about eating disorders helped Goria and Coyle realize that they were in need of help. They emphasized the importance of having a strong support system that would help keep them accountable.
“The education base helped me realize that I don’t want to put my bones under this again and result in long term Osteoporosis,” said Coyle.
Creating a routine and sticking to it has helped all three women in maintaining a healthy relationship with food. They all also were able to come to the realization that not everyday is going to go perfect body image wise, and that it’s ok.
“I think body image is an everyday thing. I don’t think anyone always loves their body, I think that is very unrealistic,” explained Goria. “But I take that, hold it, and understand it. I have realized that it does not matter in terms of my overall happiness.”
A new approach to food was essential in all of their recoveries. Coyle brought up how she now intuitively eats, which is a “philosophy of eating that makes you the expert of your body and its hunger signals,” according to Heathline.
Goria explained that finding her identity outside of sport was crucial.
“It’s not just all me or running, what is more important is having fun and enjoying myself,” explained Goria.
While the topic of eating disorders is often thought about through stereotypes and assumptions, the problem isn’t a secret, and certainly is not something new in women’s distance running.
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