Weight Loss & Running Faster: Beyond Fuel

 “But Rachael, you need fuel to run well.”
“Your body is a machine. You are the driver. The body needs fuel and maintenance.”
“If you burn it, it really does not matter what you put in the furnace.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these comments, and easily dismissed them in the depths of my eating disorder while running. I knew how important food was. In fact, I knew everything about food. When anyone assumed I didn’t see food as fuel, it was tough for me to give them much credit since all they knew about nutrition was that you eat to have energy.
Or, my peers did  know how much I studied nutrition in my spare time, and thus rarely questioned my “quirky” practices (at least not to my face).
I ate enough to fuel my races, but not enough to maintain my weight.  I saw drastic improvement (quickly discounting everything my peers told me about nutrition/fuel), and received an immense amount of praise for running faster.
“It does work–for a little while,” MSU standout runner Rachele Schulist says in an article about her recent Instagram post (it went viral in the running world–see my video response here). “And that’s the worst part about it.”
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So let’s get this straight–losing weight can “work.” The “lie” as Schulist calls it, hides in the fact that it’s not sustainable, and it ends up taking over your life in the form of food obsession, isolation, and intense guilt when you eat “too much” or when you eat the “wrong” food. Need specific examples? Let me refer you to a book called Running in Silence. ;)
Running fast becomes one of the most important things to you. It’s not to say that you don’t love your friends and family, but losing running feels like you’ve lost another loved one. So what we need to discuss is what happens later. It’s not enough to convince someone they won’t run faster, or they won’t have enough fuel to run–because it’s easy to dismiss that when it’s not happening.
It’s up to the person in their struggle with food and weight to trust the real consequences outlined below–all of which are based on my own experience, as well as many other athletes I’ve talked with. These seem to be the common outcomes:
  1. You run into injury, often a bone-density issue.
  2. You lose more weight, but continue to run into injuries or your body begins eating away at muscle because there is not enough fat left on the body.
  3. You begin bingeing on food, perhaps emotionally due to injury, or because you find it very difficult to keep restricting food/calories like you used to.
  4. You gain some, all, or way more weight back, and you’re confused about your success in running, and may or may not run as fast as you used to.
The extra problem here is that even if I had heard about these possible consequences in the midst of my eating disorder, I would have thought I was different. I was in denial of having even an eating disorder in the first place. Of course I ate! In fact, even when I ate the least amount of calories, I thought I was still eating too much. I felt ashamed of my obsession with food. I thought there was something wrong with me. So I couldn’t possibly run into this unhealthy scenario of losing too much weight or getting injured!
Second, I figured that I had more discipline than anyone else because I cared about my running so much, and that cutting out food wouldn’t be a problem and lead to bingeing because I simply didn’t eat junk food. Crave it? I would be too strong for those “silly” cravings.
Lastly, I was blinded by my “success” in running, and with that success, I already felt the weight of expectation to keep that up. I felt I couldn’t “risk” eating normally again.
In fact, I didn’t even know how.
This is why the entire issue is difficult. You can’t reason with the illogical side of your brain where the eating disorder resides. Yes, I knew I was thinner, but I had this drive to weigh less in order to run faster. It had little to do with appearance and more to do with feeling success and tying my worth to running, because it had been my identity for so long. How could I be euphorically happy without running fast?
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We must talk about this topic–and well ahead of time. You can see just by the way I likely would have responded upon learning of the consequences in the midst of my eating disorder that I was too consumed by what I was doing to want to stop what was happening.
Unfortunately, I had to learn by experiencing it all, and it is my greatest hope to prevent those five years of hell from happening to anyone else.
We need coaches to bring in the right speakers, not just to talk about basic nutrition, but about the realities of losing weight to run faster for a short period of time, and the mental and physical consequences of doing so (something that took me an entire book to explain it all. If that doesn’t tell you enough about the emotional and physical toll it has on our athletes, I don’t know what will). And we need to do this early enough to prevent it, which is easier than trying to pull someone out of something they are already experiencing. Even if they are experiencing this, it helps them to see the entire picture and at least be aware of it.
Finally, we need to have a new definition of success–that our success should be determined by how we get back up when we fall down, and that our greatest achievement is not breaking a physical barrier, but a mental one. And only then–when we as a society can emphasize the importance of who we are and our strength in overcoming–can we perhaps feel greater worth in who we are, rather than in the numbers we show for in sport.

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.

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5 Responses to Weight Loss & Running Faster: Beyond Fuel

  1. Kate Spalding says:

    This resonates SO loudly with me. I get positive comments about my strength, stamina, performance, muscle definition whilst all the time starving myself and ignoring the fact that I should eat. Instead I push myself continually, feel physically ill and look like S…. I am nearly 55 years old and have had this off and on for over 30 years. I have and are having therapy and inpatient treatment but nothing clicks. My family are worried to death, it puts enormous pressure on my marriage but I am stuck and won’t move on.

    • Rachael says:

      Kate,
      Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry this has been such a struggle for you for so long. My heart goes out to you and your family! Keep pushing through and finding your way–you CAN do this!!

  2. Tamara Steil says:

    This is absolutely one of your best posts, Rachael. You were in a spiraling mindset whose pattern would not stop unless you made a willful effort to recognize there was a problem and change that pattern through professional help with an eating disorder specialist. It was not quick. It was not simple. But your determination to break the pattern and keep working with the appropriate support you sought and found with your therapist made the difference for you.

  3. Lily says:

    Thank you so much for this. I remember struggling with disordered eating through track season of my sophomore year of high school. Although my coach did not say anything about it directly, he kept asking me how I was feeling and let him know if I felt too tired or stressed to do the workout. When the doctor finally pulled me out of track, and I told him how I couldn’t run the remainder of the season, he just nodded and said he understood.

    The following year when I made a comeback, he kept telling me how STRONG of a runner I was. He told me he could see me powering up the hills. He reminded me to taper and to recover for races. He taught me how to be a good leader and teammate, and then later, captain. Without him, I doubt I would still be running or have the healthier mindset I have now.

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