“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.”
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:
- You run into injury, often a bone density issue.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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.
Order your copy of Running in Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It here.