Running and Eating Disorders and Me

Eating disorders are something I’ve not talked about much so far. I figure there’s only so many miserable things you can write about when you’re trying to spread some positivity – and miscarriage could do with the exposure! But it is something that has affected me hugely, and (I’m coming to terms with the fact that) it will probably continue to do so, on and off.

When you already have a tendency towards controlling behaviour and restricted eating, it is easy to assume that taking up exercise is a dangerous move. For many people this is the case, and it can be a devastating combination. I’ve been mostly recovered for some time now, but I still have friends or family that instantly worry when I say I’ve been for an 18 mile run, assuming that I must be “obsessed”. I remind them that this is pretty normal when you’re training for a marathon.

Running uses up hundreds of calories, is a fantastic way to lose weight, and requires the self-discipline that every anorexic boasts. So it’s funny really, but for me, exercise has played a completely opposite role, and I am sure is one of the big reasons my eating has stabilised so much over the past few years.

Restricting my eating has always been my go-to coping mechanism when things go wrong. I’m not entirely sure why this happened, but I think from a relatively young age I have lost my appetite when I’ve felt anxious. And somewhere along the line I found that I could use restricted eating as a way to feel some control at times when I felt I had none. As a young girl there’s not a lot you can control: life happens to you, decisions are made for you. For a very long time, I’ve found a relief in watching the number on the scales diminish – in focusing on that one tiny element I could control, no matter what other things were going on. People think that anorexics aren’t hungry; in fact the opposite is true. When you starve yourself your body goes into a self-preservation mode. You think of literally nothing except food, so there isn’t much space to worry about other things (a bit like a good speed session) – and you’re too exhausted anyway. It’s this almost distraction type element that I think makes it a very powerful coping mechanism. When you can’t bear to think about the things that make you sad, think about food and calories and weight instead. It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’ve never experienced it, but this is how it was for me.

And then running came along. It didn’t pop up in a bad patch, (which is probably lucky), so it has never really been a tool in my eating disorder armoury. Instead, it was a totally new experience where I was suddenly feeling strong, and accomplished – and dare I say it, proud of my body but for a genuinely positive reason, not because I’d starved myself silly. These feelings I had when I was running started to have very tangible effects quite quickly. I found myself making all kinds of strange, new healthy decisions without anyone making me:

“Better have a good breakfast today so I’ve got lots of energy for my run” I’ve never eaten breakfast, ever.

“I’ll put a few chicken breasts in my salad tonight so I am re-fuelling myself properly” Salads are for starving, not re-fuelling.

“I’m starving today” I never expressed a feeling of hunger in public before, I liked to pretend I didn’t get hungry, as if this basic need was some kind of weakness.

My body changed a lot, and despite eating a lot more I have remained slim but a lot more toned, which certainly helps me feel in control – not in an unhealthy way. But it was my mind it really altered, and it wasn’t something I thought about until I realised it had been a long time since I’d had a relapse. Somewhere along the line, when life went wrong (or my brain went wrong for no apparent reason), I started going running instead of starving myself.  Running makes me feel great, starving myself makes me feel shit! They both give be a sense of focus, of control, of being in charge of my own body. But I highly recommend the former.

I’m writing this at the moment because I’m not having such a good patch, which seems strange. When I had my miscarriage it was one of the worst periods in my life. I did struggle a little with my eating (old negative thoughts popped up like “seeing as now you’re not going to get fat and pregnant, why don’t you find excitement getting really thin instead?”) but mostly I turned to running, and writing this blog, about running. So it is fairly devastating that the reason I’m struggling right now is because I had a stomach bug. Forty-eight hours of not being able to eat, feeling that emptiness inside that happens when you’re really poorly. The fear of trying to eat something and it setting the whole thing back off again. Within hours of being unwell all my old feelings came flooding right back with a frightening vengeance.

I’ve survived all kind of things in the last few years, and now I’ve been ambushed out of nowhere by a seasonal stomach bug. Ridiculous.

Except as my partner pointed out, it probably isn’t just that. That would be totally disregarding how hard Christmas has been this year. In the past I’ve written about lots of negative things, but usually once they are resolved so I can round it off with something super uplifting. I started this blog to try and share the positive impact getting active can have, particularly for women. I don’t want it to be depressing. But when you try and write positive things all the time it can also be a bit of a pressure – you wake up one day feeling really crap, and you know no-one wants to hear about that. So you either write nothing, or you try come up with something uplifting even though you don’t feel like that at all. Which is a) fake, and b) makes you start to feel like you have a split personality. So I decided I would write about this, at the time, before it is resolved (and I’m sure it will be resolved soon) because I know that writing about it will help – it gives me perspective when I read it back.

I’ve little doubt that this is only a very small blip (so don’t think that by writing about it, it means there’s a great drama), and if I can get enough energy in me to make running not a completely-stupid-thing-to-do I know that will help hugely. And I will try really hard to not let running become another means of controlling my weight. But I am also so often blown away by the kind and supportive comments I’ve had on things I’ve written, so I guess I decided to post it now, when I need that encouragement, rather than wait until I’ve figured it all out and be wise about it again. And because when you choose to talk about your personal life openly, you’ve got to make a decision about whether you are going to do this honestly or not.

I have no doubt that in the future we will talk as openly about our mental health as we do our physical. In fact, I am sure they will look back on this period in time and laugh at how stupid we were for considering them separate at all. So in the same way I’ve been happy to tell people “yeah I’m ok, I’ve had a bit of a stomach bug over Christmas but I’m getting there”, here’s me saying “yeah I’m ok, I’m struggling with my eating a little at the moment but I’m sure I’ll be feeling better soon”.

5 thoughts on “Running and Eating Disorders and Me

  1. I’m sorry you are not feeling well. I wrote a similar post as you just did about how running is forcing me to make healthy choices that are not weight-centered. When I was told to eat high-fat and protein-rich foods after I got my wisdom teeth taken out last month, I found myself confronting my fears about certain foods that I had kinda swept under the rug. I too understand that I can’t let running take over my weight obsession. There is a really fine line, especially for female runners. But I’m looking forward to taking it slow and discover how else running can help me and my complicated relationship to my body. Thanks for your honesty… I feel the same way as you often! Hope you feel better soon!

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  2. Well done for being brave enough to share this right now. I’m sorry things aren’t good. I think stomach bugs can make us very wary of what we eat, and if food has been an issue in the past then it’s not a big surprise that this would trigger something. With your love of running and understanding that your body needs to be properly fuelled in order to run, I’m sure you will resolve. I hope you feel better soon.

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  3. I hope you’re feeling better mentally and physically. I can really relate to you and your relationship with food and with running. At 32 years old and after becoming a mom I am
    Working hard on my ED recovery and I have always found running as a positive outlet rather than how I chose to
    Control my food Intake. Your words are a reminder and an inspiration that I want my body and mind to be strong. Thank you for writing.
    Also as a mental health therapist struggling recovering from an eating disorder I have been hesitant to blog about this myself but I wonder if maybe at some point if it could help even just one person it may be worth it. All the best to you!

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    1. That’s so lovely to read, thank you. Yes I think there’s a perception exercise will be negative, but for me it totally rationalised my relationship with food – and gave me motivation to nourish myself. I’m so glad you’ve found it helpful.. keep going 😘

      Liked by 1 person

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