“They Just Disappeared”: Beyond Anorexia in Runners

We often picture eating disorders in the running world as a frail girl crossing the finish line in first place. There’s the assumption that they will run into multiple stress fractures in the next few years—and that, that is how they will disappear from the ranks as quickly as they came.
Injury. Lack of energy. Infertility. We bring up these consequences of not eating enough, of becoming too frail. Meanwhile, the least-discussed part of this “disappearing act” is what you might call the sister of anorexia: binge eating disorder, a very common rebound effect of having restricted calories or food groups.
Binge Eating Disorder
Just as serious as anorexia (and even more common), binge eating disorder manifests in a nightmare of consuming vast quantities of food in a frantic, guilt-ridden manner. It prompts sufferers to eat foods they would’ve never touched before, and leaves them feeling immense guilt for days afterward. It triggers a response to want to restrict again, which, in the end, only makes the binge eating worse.

Binge eating does not forgive. It does not replenish the runner after one episode. The hunger and loss of control will feel so intense, so unlike their previous calculation of calories and measured meals that a runner may feel that their bodies are not properly equipped to eat food normally, causing even tighter eating regimens. They often restrict their calories or food groups repeatedly just to feel a sense of “normalcy,” to “fix” their problem, and struggle to eat as others do, only to experience the intense hunger yet again (and a raging hunger, mind you, that is very reasonable given their past and what entails binge eating disorder).
Personal Experience
Binge eating was not recognized in the DSM-5 until 2013—nearly two years after I realized binge eating was exactly what I was dealing with. Struggling with something without a name made me trivialize my struggles (“I just have no discipline,” “I wasn’t starving myself before, so I’m just being a baby,” “I’m just obsessed with food”). It furthered my denial of dealing with something serious. I thought that no other runner in their right mind would “lose so much control” in a world of discipline, willpower, and mental strength.
Not only did binges leave me feeling guilty and ashamed, but physically I struggled to adapt to my new shape and weight (and wondered if I could only be happy when I was thinner and faster). I fell into a depression over my loss of identity as a thinner runner, seeing my “lack of control” as a failure of “discipline” and “willpower.”

Beyond Weight Gain
Suffering an injury from lack of nutrition is only part of the disappearance story. Struggling with the emotions and the bingeing that may accompany a loss of running (and the body’s chance to fight back for the calories) is the other half of the story we need to discuss, not only to help those who feel they are suffering alone in their experience, but also to discuss why this happens, and how to stop it from worsening (which usually entails finding ways to stop restricting food, pulling them out of the vicious cycle).
We need to talk about binge eating disorder among runners because it is such a common aftermath of having dealt with anorexia, yet we continue to focus on how runners get injured and “just disappear.” Let’s talk about where they “disappear” to. Let’s talk about what kind of strength it takes to deal with and fight an eating disorder. We must bring binge eating disorder into the conversation because we need to expose ways in which we can combat it, understand it (knowledge is power!) and let runners know they are not alone, not “crazy,” and that their bodies are not broken. 

A healthy weight does not always equate success and recovery. It does not always mean the sufferer is “well” again. We are failing our runners as coaches by only “looking” for eating disorders in the thinnest appearance. We fail to discuss all eating disorders in running (including the ones that may not result in a physical lack of energy or physical injury, but in emotional and physical distress).
Without this narrative, we are leaving thousands of runners in the dark—scared, alone, ashamed, and afraid to speak out about behaviors rarely discussed (“does this make me abnormal?”). They often fear that exposing their weight gain at the hands of what they see as overconsumption of food will only spur comments about lack of discipline and willpower—a stigma society often associates with additional weight, and an insult to a runner who often uses an immense amount of discipline and willpower to run and train as they normally do.
Without this narrative, sufferers are confused about their own bodies, ashamed of their predicament, and left running in silence.

About Rachael

Rachael Steil is a graduate from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan with a Bachelor of Arts. Steil an author, speaker, and a recipient of the Spirit and Outstanding Runner award for the Aquinas College cross country team and has received 6th place All-American accolades in cross country as well as 7th place in the NAIA track nationals.
This entry was posted in Anorexia, Binge Eating, Call to Action, Running. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “They Just Disappeared”: Beyond Anorexia in Runners

  1. Dean says:

    Going through this right now. Suffering nagging injuries and midnight binges. Can’t heal because I need to beat down the uncontrollable binge.

    What can a runner do when loved ones and doctor only see the weight gain as healthy? It’s completely not, and they treat us like we are slow witted jack-a-ninnies.

    • Rachael says:

      I guess I see it as, the binge needs to happen–it’s part of your body’s response to get back to where it needs to be, or at least a response to the restriction it has endured. Everyone is different, but I realized the more I tried to fight the binge, the worse it became. It just had to run its course, and will run its course sooner/quicker(??) with less resistance. It doesn’t mean we should binge on anything and everything–I finally realized I could eat like my body needed, but I needed to work toward foods that were less processed. I also wrote down my hunger feelings so I could better read and understand my body again. It was a LONG process, but like I sort of said at the beginning, necessary.
      I’ll probably address this question more in a YouTube video too . . . really good question.

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