Hopeful, Hungry and Chasing a Lie: Disordered Eating in Distance Running

Reebok/ZAP Fitness runner Sarah Crouch is training for the April 18 Boston Marathon. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Sarah Crouch is a professional runner sponsored by Reebok and affiliated with the ZAP Fitness Elite training group in Blowing Rock, N.C. She shares her experience with disordered eating within the distance running world and gives her support to those suffering from calorie restriction and body image critique. Crouch, who owns a 2:32:44 marathon PR, is training for the April 18 Boston Marathon.

This story originally appeared on bellelap.com.

One of my favorite parts of being a professional athlete is telling people that I’m a professional athlete and then making them guess what sport I play. About 50 percent of the time I hear “gymnastics” with the other 50 percent split evenly between “soccer” and “dancing”. I even got “fencing” once which was flattering and totally badass. Most of the time, when I tell someone I am a distance runner they tell me I look strong for a distance runner.

In many ways, the word “strong” has become a derogatory word for female runners. “Strong” has become the nice way of saying “bigger”. I’ve never been stick skinny. Frankly, I have no desire to be. What I see many collegiate women go through troubles me beyond what I can express in words. The crop of rail-thin runners that powerhouse schools produce year after year, few of whom continue to train post-collegiately, saddens me to my core. This is not to say that seeking success through weight loss is limited to the collegiate ranks. I would be seriously surprised to find a single professional female runner in the world today who could honestly say that she has had a completely functional relationship with food for the entirety of her career. Food can be a runner’s liberator and worst nightmare. I can’t tell you that dropping weight won’t make you faster. Usually it does. What I can tell you is that it’s not worth it. Not even close to worth it.

After over a decade of training and competing, all I can tell you is what I’ve seen happen more times than I can count. Runner X decides she wants to hit the next level without waiting 2-3 more years of training, or, more likely, Runner X looks around on the starting line, notices the other athletes, some thin, some too-thin, some her own size, and convinces herself that losing weight is the key to success.

Runner X begins restricting calories and sure enough, minutes melt off the finishing clock even faster than the pounds melt off her body. This continues until she is the too-thin girl on the starting line that others see. She is at the top of her game. Then it’s over. She crumbles to pieces, sometimes literally. I’ve seen a woman pushed forward during a race resulting in a broken back. I’ve seen more stress fractures than I can count, watched national-class women told that they have the bone density of a 60-year-old woman. I’ve watched women threaten their fertility and start losing their hair. But I think the saddest symptom is the fading of their personalities as more and more of who they are is consumed by concern for the numbers on the scale.

And the crazy thing is, NO ONE TALKS ABOUT IT! I’m guilty too. I’ve had actual friends go down this path and I’ve turned my back. Refused to say anything though I had the crystal ball. I knew what would happen and eventually it did. I just counted my blessings that it wasn’t me.

I’ve seen it all, the girl who sheds 20 pounds and is completely broken 6 months later, or the one who is able to withstand the stress of training on a fragile body a little longer and lasts a year or more. The one thing they all have in common? Every single female runner that chooses the path of calorie restriction to achieve success thinks she is the exception to the rule. Not one of those girls expects the spectacular crash and burn.

RELATED: Emelie Forsberg’s Balanced Approach About Food, Weight and Body Image

What I am writing is not meant to skinny-shame. I want to be very clear about that. I know plenty of women who were born quite thin and naturally fit the lean body type. That’s not who I’m speaking about. I’m talking about the women who intentionally limit their intake of calories through restriction or purging. These women know in their heart that they are living and running in a body that is lighter than it was designed to be. They are hopeful, they are hungry, they are chasing a lie. All I hope to achieve in putting this to paper is to reach the girl who was not born to look like a streamlined Kenyan distance runner. Girl, you don’t have to. You don’t.

Here is the alternative. Eat enough. Train. Get faster one step at a time. All of my running career, people have told me I don’t look like a distance runner. Well who the hell decides what a distance runner is supposed to look like? I’ve run 5:49 miles for 26.2 miles in a row. I AM a distance runner no matter what I look like. The best thing I ever did for my running was to actively stop comparing myself to others. I compare me to me. Over the past decade, my body has changed. I look different than I did 5 years ago and I will look different 5 years from now. Given the time, years of mileage and speed work slowly sculpt YOUR body into the perfect running version of YOUR body. The most dangerous thing you can do is to choose a runner that you want to look like. You are not her, you are you. Train hard, eat well and be the best version of you.

If you’ve gone down the path of calorie restriction to see faster racing times and want to find your way back to healthy, well-rounded training, please reach out to me at sarah@runnersconnect.net or read more of my blogs online.

RELATED: Training on Empty—A Runner’s Struggle with Anorexia

RELATED: Weight Off My Shoulders: A Competitive Runner Talks About His Eating Disorder

For more information about eating disorders and how to get help, check out the National Institute of Mental Health website, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website or call the NEDA hotline at (800) 931-2237.

 

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