Eating Disorders and Running Faster: Beyond Fuel

Post updated March 14, 2021, to improve clarity and readability.

“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.”

As a runner, I knew how important food was. In fact, I believed I knew a lot more about nutrition than most of my peers. When anyone assumed I didn’t see food as fuel, I didn’t give them much credit since I was the one constantly “researching” nutrition.

I believe this speaks to the complexity of eating disorders. As someone who was unknowingly struggling with disordered eating, hearing comments like the ones above did nothing to make me “just start eating more.”

Weight Loss and Running Faster

Drastic improvement and praise in my athletic performances were all I could see at the onset of my eating disorder as a runner. If I really wasn’t eating enough, I thought, how could I have this much success?

I was never informed about the common experience athletes have when restricting food: sometimes a surge in performances, only to be followed by injuries, disordered eating, and/or other health issues. Had I known more about these consequences, I might have realized that my poor relationship with food needed to be addressed.

I may have thought about seeking help sooner.

“This Couldn’t Be an Eating Disorder”

But I had many misconceptions about eating disorders–that it didn’t happen often, if at all, to athletes. Or that I had to be “thin enough” to be taken seriously. Additionally, no one seemed to identify and address red flags (like starting a raw food diet, losing my period, eating plates of mostly vegetables, eliminating desserts).

My denial fueled the thought that I was just “fixing” my voracious appetite. I believed super rigid, healthy eating was for my athletic lifestyle. I thought that the binge eating that followed my restriction was a lack of discipline. I believed that my success in running was earned through how “good” I was around food.

If someone were to tell me to “just fuel more,” and I realized they were right, I still wouldn’t have known how to start. I would have been too afraid of going so “out of control.” And when the binge eating developed, I thought it proved exactly that.

No Simplifying a Complex Illness

We have to talk about not only the physical toll eating disorders take on athletes, but also the emotional and social toll. We must raise awareness so that athletes aren’t left in the dark wondering what exactly is “wrong” about how they struggle with food and their mental health. We must show that it’s okay and important for athletes to get the professional mental health help that they deserve.

It’s not as simple as “just eating more.”  It goes beyond just telling someone “how to fuel.”

As Lize Brittin told me once, “Imagine how many healthy runners there would be [if it were so simple].”

5 replies
  1. Kate Spalding
    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
      Rachael says:

      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
    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
    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.

    • Rachael
      Rachael says:

      Lily that’s awesome!! Sounds like a great coach. :) I was fortunate enough to have an amazing coach as well!

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