Today I present to you Sarah Bradley a guest blogger who recently wrote an article about distance runners and eating. Sarah’s article is personal and powerful.
I did not partake in the sport of competitive running until college. In the summer of 2013 between my first skeptical, yet decently improved running capability in my freshman track season and awaited first cross country season in the fall, I was consistently running more than ever and was not eating nearly enough. The low fat cottage cheese, plates full of broccoli with low calorie dressing, and massive amounts of coffee were all that I would let pass my lips and anything else, sometimes even fruit, I would purge. My idea of an indulgence was letting myself keep down my dinner of salad with cheese and half a cookie. I had never been so restrictive with my diet before in my life. I had my share of body image issues growing up, but none more serious than a typical teenage girl. I just kept thinking, “I have to be thinner to run faster. I have to look like ___(enter any successful lean long distance runner here).” Standing at 5’2 and 125 pounds, my body was far from the svelte physiques of top female long distance runners. I lost over 20 pounds in 8 weeks. I eventually realized that I had a problem and made an appointment the first week of the semester with my school’s student health services. My season started out with constant stomach cramps, injury, and a 23:54 6k. Fortunately, I was able to stop restricting my food intake and had a huge turn around by the end of the season getting my time down by almost two minutes and qualifying for nationals. Two years later, having been in the sport long enough to make some observations of my fellow female counterparts, I have met many female long distance runners that are in the pursuit of trying to get thinner even if they are already very lean because they want to, “run faster.” So, you want to run faster? I promise you that your efforts of creating a caloric deficit are doing anything but helping you increase your turnover and running economy. Those two goals do not go hand in hand with weight loss because those two goals are only attributed to smart training and proper adaptions to training. Habitually not eating enough, whether you are overweight or not, could explain why you can’t handle higher mileage, get constant injuries that haunt you for months, or burn out by the end of the season. I think the difference between struggling with an eating disorder and disordered eating is whether those thoughts and habits are enough to negatively affect daily living and well being. Both are serious matters and any unhealthy habits, and no matter the reason, should be addressed by seeking professional help, but for most females runners it seems that their mindset does not enter into the dark place that I was once in, but it is gloomy enough to interfere with their performance and enjoyment in the sport. They seem to be out there in that gray area: a well intended quest towards being leaner and stronger, but their approach has only been digging them into a hole of stagnant frustration and low self esteem.
Where is this pressure that facilitates eating concerns coming from? For some runners the pressure comes from coaches. Chris Bader, a sports psychologist having worked at two Division I schools in his career says, “Disordered eating sticks out the most in mental among female college athletes and is more of an issue for athletes in this setting than non athletes. I know coaches have told athletes, “You came in from summer fat,” I point out to them that it depends on the lens in which they look. They have to ask themselves, “Am I actually fat because the number on the scale is different than before?” Coaches will subtly hint things instead of making direct statements such as, “Try not to lose fitness over the Summer or you could try getting more toned.”
Mental health has been a pressing concern in the NCAA institution. In 2013, Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Brian Hainline made mental health the number one focus of health and safety concern in the NCAA. “There more than 200 pages of mental health documents buried deep in the NCAA website — a quarter of which focus on women’s issues alone” (Ching). Bader points out that at the higher level of competition, the focus isn’t always on health or school, but on athletic performance. Sometimes their mental or physical health and academics are overlooked, as long as they are performing well. “Mental health is a rampant issue among all divisions, sports, and students however, if you look at the NCAA website you never see the word “student” right away in the DI section, in the DII section you scroll a little and see it, but in the DIII section you see it right away.” From experience, I know that many runners, especially on higher caliber teams, can also create an environment where disordered eating is the norm. I know of teammates on various teams in all divisions who feed off of each others’ eating habits. One thin girl wouldn’t eat cheese, so they all quit eating cheese. I know many females that are so focused on being skinny that they would workout extra and skip team ice cream socials or pre-race pasta dinners. Whether the pressure to lose pounds is coming from yourself, your teammate, or your coach ask yourself, “Is this really going to make me a better runner?” That is a question I wish I would have asked myself at one point. Now, I can answer it.
This past February, I decided to race in the USATF Cross Country Nationals in Boulder, Co. Being in the presence of some of the top elite level female runners in the country, I noticed that most of these women were not “skinny.” These women would probably take offense to the label “skinny” as their hard stomachs, sculpted legs, and strong arms to carry them through their 8k worth of 5:XX miles through years of training deserves a better label than that. Yes, to a NARP (Non-athletic-regular-person), they might be considered skinny or thin, but in my eyes they evoked great strength. The fastest women, faster than any training partner or local runner you probably know, were here in front of me and I assure you they did not resemble what you have in your head as the new body that you think you need to shave some time off your personal best. To be honest, other than that they were all lean relative to their build, they all looked completely different. Some had upper body definition, some did not. Some had quads that would put my school men’s soccer team to shame while some had glutes worthy of a underwear commercial, but they all were strong and speedy no matter what size their body and limbs were. So, whoever legs you want or some Instagram abs you want, get it out of your head because that is not you, so embrace what you have.
Over the following summer, I had the privilege of revisiting Boulder, Colorado for a month. I wanted to pick the brains of some of the best runners, dietitians, and people that work with a population full of some serious swinging ponytails. Upon being there, I got to have lunch with professional runner, Sara Vaughn, (2011 World Championships team in the 1500 meter and Olympic Trials Finalist in 2012.) She made an excellent point, “I think the great thing about competitive running in the United States is that there is such variety in body types among the elite runners for young girls to look up to. There are several different types of bodies for each event, so finding someone who is built like you could really be helpful in knowing that you don’t need to change your body. I know that I am never going to be as thin as some other runners. What is important is making the training and healthy choices the number one focus.” She mentions that from her own experience and being around many elite runners, everyone seems to have an ideal weight that they train and race at and manipulating that through excessive training or diet could really subtract from training, so losing weight beyond what a certain body wants to just results in less strength and decreased performance.
Also while in Boulder, I was able to meet the famous coach, Mark Wetmore. We stood together on the track watching his distance runners’ final workout before regionals, and I couldn’t help but notice that every single one of runners looked very healthy and incredibly strong, unlike some other competitive college teams. His 4:13.48 3rd place Division I Nationals 1500 meter runner, Sara Sutherford, lifted up her shirt at one point and there were no hip bones, but there were chiseled abs. No matter the division or race there will always be those very thin women that do not go unnoticed no matter how fast they ran, but these University of Colorado runners looked just like the women at the USATF race. I asked Wetmore what he thought was the most important aspect to training, and he said just what he told Lauren Fleshman that she wrote in a pervious article of Runner’s World, “Consistent training. Being able to go long periods of time without injury and interruptions.”
The biggest cause for missing time for most runners is injury. Registered Dietitian, ultra runner, and owner of Source Nutrition, Lynn Smith, working with many athletes in Colorado says, “I have worked with several female long distance runners who may be around 110 lbs., run for 1-2 hours a day, and whether intentionally or not, do not eat enough food. They will have a granola bar after their run and a big salad for dinner and they think that is enough, but it really isn’t. They say that they just aren’t that hungry or may be used to the training load, but the runners that eat like this are doing themselves a huge disservice. They eventually run into a lowered metabolic rate, chronic fatigue, and over use injuries.” Nutrition and Injury usually go hand in hand. “When glycogen levels are low or there is a glycogen depletion, muscles increase the utilization of protein and amino acids to produce glucose, acting as gluconeogenic precursors. Since protein and amino acids are the building blocks of muscle, the latter may enter a catabolic situation (muscle breakdown). Essentially, the muscle “eats itself to feed itself” by increasing the amount of protein and amino acids used for energy purposes. This situation may lead to muscle damage. It may further lead to chronic overtraining, as it has been shown that muscle damage limits and interferes with glycogen storage and synthesis, so that even with a high carbohydrate diet it would be difficult to maintain glycogen stores. If this happens, the athlete could enter a vicious cycle leading to overtraining and a decrease in performance” (Millan). In lay terms, by not eating enough you will eat your own muscle and minimize your body’s ability to give you energy to run…that is definitely not the road to a personal best. I was curious to see just how much energy intake I would need given my body and lifestyle, so I had a consultation done with by a local business, “Colorado Nutrition.” Given my age, weight, height, body composition, non-exercise related activity, exercise, and thermic effect of food I would need around 2,800 calories a day to maintain my weight. Keep in mind, I’m a very small person and log about 65-85 miles a week when training. Most serious long distance collegiate runners will run about as much, but most women are taller and weigh more than me, so they would likely require more calories. Smith says, “Even the typical young and lean female distance runner logging 50+ miles a week may need 2,500-4,000 calories a day. The ones who eat less than they require feel like they are running through mud. Most are stubborn and hard willed. They will try to train through the fatigue, but they will eventually just burn out.” So, you granola bar grabbing and salad munching runners: realize that that is just not enough fuel for how much you are training .
So you wonder how some extremely thin, malnourished women can still run…and you think, well, maybe if I just short term engaged in some disordered eating it wouldn’t be that bad, right? My good friend, Emily Paull, a fellow exercise science major and All American in the 3,000 meter steeple chase, wrote a paper for school, “Activity-Based Anorexia in Elite Aerobic Athletes and the Effects on Performance and the Metabolic Energy System,” “Researchers have done studies on rats to illustrate how restriction of food can naturally cause a body to perform better. According to Kanarek and Collier (2013), two control groups of rats were tested; the group of rats that were fed one meal per day ran significantly more on the wheel than the rats who were fed normally (as cited in Epling & Pierce, 1988, p. 477). They found that the less they fed the rats; there were more revolutions the rat was able to output on the wheel. During the experiment, the rats continued to lose weight and perform better than the rats that were fed normally. Even when those rats were given the opportunity to eat more, they did not intake anymore food. This has to do with the correlation between food intake and repression of appetite. Another similar study done by Kanarek, D’Anci, Jurdak, and Mathes (2009), found that both food-restricted rats and non-food-restricted active rats initially increased running, but the food-restricted rat was able to run more than the non-food-restricted rat. They came to a conclusion that it was possible for the rats to do this because of “exercise induced increases in endogenous opioid peptides act in a manner similar to chronic administration of opiate drugs” (Kanarek, D’Anci, Jurdak, & Mathes, 2009, p. 910). As stated earlier, running can be addictive. This is the feeling that is sensationalized among runners. It is the feeling of running with no pain. This conclusion indicates that the body produces a natural similar effect of opiate drugs. Opiate drugs contain opioids that attach to certain opioid receptors and block the transmission of messages of pain being sent to the brain (Larance, Degenhardt, Lintzeris, Winstock, & Mattick, 2011). This can explain why runners are able to go without eating and still perform while the body uses its own source of fuel.” Emily follows up with, “Similar to any eating disorder, activity-based anorexia can be detrimental to the runner. Although there are performance increasing capabilities of limiting food intake during training, it only happens for a certain amount of time. The time limitation is dependent on the runner, but typically works for one season of training before the athlete is seriously affected. Activity-based anorexia is just as deadly as any eating disorder with the amount of time it is practiced. In the second experiment discussed by Kanarek, D’Anci, Jurdak, and Mathes (2011), it took the rats about 3 weeks before they leveled off. After a long period of time, the rats that had increased their activity as a result of less food intake began to decrease the amount of running they were able to sustain. This demonstrates how the body eventually runs out of fuel to be able to supply the body for physical metabolic needs. The body goes into basic metabolic needs for survival and only constitutes any energy towards basic living standard. Activity based anorexia causes electrolyte imbalance and hypophosphatemia which can later cause cardiac dysfunction (Maguire et al., 2008). Electrolyte imbalance is the loss of many minerals including calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphate, potassium, and sodium, all of which supply the body with energy and is excreted during physical activity (“Fluid and Electrolyte Balance,” 2013). Hypophosphatemia is defined as the deficit of phosphate levels in the body, which harms many cellular processes in the body including bone composition (Lederer, 2013).”
So, please do not compare yourself to those dangerously thin runners in the lead pack with gaunt cheeks and no joy in there eyes, despite maybe getting a conference title. A title that they will likely only win once. Please do not think you need to have drastically different body from your own to run the best you can. I am not implying that every thin runner in the race is unhealthy, as I have pointed out that we all look different, but what I am implying is that if you want to get a personal best this next season make the focus on some training related changes and not your weight. Ask yourself, “Am I working on my leg speed enough?” “Am I doing enough core work?” “Is my stride efficient as it could be?” “Do I workout too hard and not recover enough?” Maybe you need to make some dietary habit changes as well. “Do I eat out of boredom or stress?” “Do I eat enough nutrient dense foods?” “Do I graze through out the day and have good blood sugar levels?” If you make healthy eating and solid workouts the focus, then success will come in time. Remember to be patient with yourself. Hopefully, I gave you several reasons why losing weight in general or suddenly dropping weight will not benefit you in the long run. If you find yourself in the trap of thinking thinner is always better, whether that idea stems from your environment or own thoughts remember that you can’t be a great runner without making your health your top priority.
Ching, Justin. “Mental Health Issues a Huge Challenge for NCAA in Regard to Student Athletes.” Fox Sports. 25 Mar, 2015.
Millan, San. “The Importance of Carbohydrates and Glycogen for Athletes.” Training Peaks. 17, Jan. 2013.
Epling, W., & Pie rce, W. (1988). Activity-based anorexia: A biobehavioral perspective. International Journal Of Eating Disorders, 7(4), 475-485.
Kanarek, R. B., D’Anci, K. E., Jurdak, N., & Mathes, W. (2009). Running and addiction: Precipitated withdrawal in a rat model of activity-based anorexia. Behavioral Neuroscience, 123(4), 905-912. doi:10.1037/a0015896 Larance, B., Degenhardt, L., Lintzeris, N., Winstock, A., & Mattick, R. (2011).
Definitions related to the use of pharmaceutical opioids: Extramedical use, diversion, non-adherence and aberrant medication-related behaviours. Drug And Alcohol Review, 30(3), 236-245. doi:10.1111/j.1465-3362.2010.00283.
Sarah’s quick bio:
Sarah Bradley an aspiring sub-elite runner and coach from Dectaur, IL attending Millikin University studying athletic training with a minor in nutrition. Currently runs cross country and track in Division III under the NCAA.
If you are interested in reading other topics related to distance training please don’t forget about my good friends blog from Sean O’Conner on all things distance at https://coachoc.blogspot.com