Running: What to do when it's part of an eating disorder...

For those of you in the very 'weight conscious' category of runners, I have an area for discussion that I'd be very interested to hear what people's thoughts are...

I'm currently recovering (or, at least, trying to recover) from an eating disorder. As I'm a runner too, and was before the food issues became big issues, this is an area I'm really struggling to get a hold on. No matter what I do, the running always always always turns into something that fuels my obsession with calories and weight loss. It started off being something I enjoyed for the health and fitness benefits, but has, for the past seven years, been a source of calorie-ridding, fat-burning, control-keeping form of activity (only keeping my eating disorder thoughts and behaviours going strong).

My issue is, do I stop running altogether in order to get better? I know this option needs to be seriously considered. I just don't want to stop exercising because I will feel rubbish. I've tried cutting my runs down to 3 to three times a week for no longer than 45 minutes a time, so I don't get too obsessed. But I'm still no better in the head for it!

For those of you who have had similar issues, how do you get out of a situation like this?! Is it a case of giving up exercise?


  • Cal JonesCal Jones ✭✭✭

    It's a difficult question - one, perhaps only you can answer. How does running make you feel? Is it something you feel you must do only to regulate your weight? Is it a chore, or do you enjoy it?

    I run because I like to go out, somewhere green and away from my computer. I like to daydream while I run. It gives me the chance to decompress.

    It wasn't always this way, though. As a teen with a very poor body image I became obsessed with running after reading about an athlete who ate several thousand calories' worth of food (including chocolate) a day and burned it all off training twice daily. I started to do the same - 2 miles before school and 3 miles when I got home. Saturdays I only ran once, because I had a Saturday job. That was my "rest" day. However, I didn't supplement this with a lot of calories - I ate salads. I lost weight but it didn't take me long to get injured. My dietary discipline went out of the window and I piled it all on again, plus some. I learned a lot from that experience.

    The amount of running you are doing now is not excessive but if you are no longer enjoying it, I would suggest switching it or mixing it up with different types of activity. Try a sprint session instead of one of your longer runs (these are actually more effective for burning calories and recomping your body). Go to the gym and lift weights (again, more effective for changing your shape, if you actually feel you need to do that). Swim, cycle, ice skate, ride a horse, take a gymnastics class. Or find a race and train for that, rather than with the goal of managing your weight.

    Eating disorders are hard to deal with - I have been battling my own. Drinkers, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers and smokers can all just quit, but people with eating disorders still have to eat. I read somewhere that for other addicitons, you put the tiger in the cage. For eating disorders, you put it in the cage but take it out for a walk three times a day. See how you get on but if you are really not recovering, mentally, then you can try counselling.

    Good luck.

  • I think its easy for running/exercising to become unhealthily linked with an eating disorder......its a shame if it takes away your enjoyment of a activity like running............

    not sure how you can try and break the link..................maybe finding a new runner nearby who would like a running buddy.............this would give your runs a different focus.............slower and for someone elses benefit..........and maybe the enjoyment of running would return as you would not be going for a distance or a speed in the training.............just helping someone else/..............

    good luck and i hope you can arrive at a solution which you are happy with

  • Summerain - this sounded just like me. I only admitted to an eating disorder ten years ago and since then have kept it in check. Running has been a huge part of that as well as having to eat well whilst pregnant.
    I just realised that my runs used up so many calories, I could eat anything! Licence to eat! I put on some weight - but it was muscle and all in the right places. Marathon training was like a god send - had to eat or can't preform.
    Injured at the moment - couldn't believe the old demons were back! Found myself deliberately eating as little as I could, that was a wake up call! Have had to really pull myself together - and do a lot of cross training and talking to myself, that the weight isn't going to pile on.
    Not easy to do, but friends around me have really helped and although I realise it is something that will always be with me, exercising and eating healthily, is the best thing to overcome it. Although I started running so I could eat, I run now because I just love it.
    Good luck! But I would keep on running if you enjoy it, or try something new like cycling, for a change. I think exercise is the so important for healthy mind and healthy body.
  • I enjoy running usually. There are the times when I don't have the energy but still make myself go, only to struggle throughout, but I always feel better to have done it. But my main concern for every run is using up calories that I don't want stored on my body because I'm so scared of weight gain etc. But if I were to stop running ( which I've had to do twice before to have my children) I know I'll regret it. I'm seriously thinking changing activity for a bit. Maybe swimming. Running is so handy for working round my kids/husband working etc so it'll take some planning. But it's worth a go. Even if I swam just twice a week maybe and ran twice.

    For those of you keeping your eating disorders in check (I can't imagine how they ever actually go away for good) do you still slip up? Does your running ever become more of an unhealthy obsession again instead of being fun? How do you stop yourself going back?

    I'm due to have counselling very soon and also being referred to a dietician to help me know how much I should eat. I'm so desperate to get better and eat / think / exercise like a normal eater!
  • I think cal makes a really good point, you should find the joy of running again rather than doing it to just burn calories. There's no harm in that but when it becomes an obsession then its bad but at least you acknowledge that you're feeling this way....the first step is acknowledgement.

    I do run to burn calories and i'm trying to contain that but i've always had food relationship issues but i do geniunely enjoy doing it, clears my head and is my down time just for me. Perhaps you need to find that again. I would say that giving up all together is perhaps not the best idea though simply for stress and anxiety managment which comes with food disorders sometimes.

    All the best

  • Had a long chat about it to my husband tonight. I've decided to go for the 'run more so I can eat more' approach. I see it as the best option. I need to feel healthy and energetic again, and this particular idea will do that. Then the enjoyment will hopefully increase. I know how rubbish it is to eat little and run lots. Awful. And even though I'm heavier running lots to eat lots, I'm in no way fat! And the plus side of this method of control is the physical healthiness. We'll see how it goes... Thanks for your inputs! x
  • I also suffered from a eating disorded too. Is something that gets better sometimes and other times workse but it never goes away.

    The mental battle is still there and calories are always in your mind, no matter what you do or how you look.

    I know the feeling.

     Personally running makes me feel better and is helping me with mine.

    But years and years ago i was a dancer, and that was when the problem was at its worse, as you can imagine dancing is all about image and i suffered terribly.

    In the dancing world eating disorders are so normal that is the norm so I did not even realise i had an eating disorder. And nobody suspected because dancers/ballerinas are supposed to be skinny, so it was expected of me and i even was congratulated for it. It was only when i left dancing that i realised how bad my eating disroder was..........

    Running is helping in the sense that i concentrate in fitness and health, but still i am obsessed with diets and i can't help keeping track of calories and counting calories everyday, writing them down on my notebook.

    That part i can cope with. I know that i will never stop counting calories so i accept that and everyone who is with me has to accept it too. Is part of who i am: my diets are part of me and my identity,

  • I have an eating disorder. I have had many varieties of anorexia and bulimia for the past 10-15ish years and I thave come to the conclusion that the way I eat is governed by the way I think and until that changes, which would it seems require a brain transplant! I will have to live with this but be careful to not live under it IYSWIM and be careful to keep myself in check.

    I had up until about the end of last year, used exercise soley to burn calories and feel better as a result. It was all about what my calorie counting heart rate monitor told me and I'd easily spent upwards of 15 hours a week in the gym on all the cardio machines. Over 3 years I gained a good few stone, muscle, cortisol-laidened fat, who knows! I was eating more but not that much, I wasn't sure where the weight came from but it just seemed to accumulate around my torso which drove me to do more and more at the gym. My rational was if I had any energy left to do anything I was going to get fat. I had to get to the stage where I felt exhausted to feel happy. It became a version of self harm: how to rid myself of bad feelings about myself? push myself as hard as I could, feel pain and I knew I was getting somewhere. It became more obvious it was a self-harm issue when I got what was only this year diagnosed as a tibial stress fracture. I hated exercising with it but it became a way to tourture myself and feel better about myself.

    I saw my life vanishing bit by bit and made the decision to cut back at the gym. I hated the gym, I hated exercise, I was the kid at school who never did PE- I was never fat, infact I was very scrawny and for a reason! I wanted my life back, Simply, I wanted me back. I worked very hard with a dietition to cut what I could and not have my then near overweight weight climb any further. Infact I lost weight! I did cut food slightly at first but not by much. This told me that exercise isn't what controls weight, it just adds a little extra. A trainer then confirmed to me: 65% food, 25% exercise the rest through genetics and hormones, thats what controls weight.

    So why am still running? Well. Good question!

    I found that after cutting back so much I had the energy to run but not only this, the tibial pain I had had gone! I began running an hour or so back in October and stepped it up from there, I learnt that this was a very special thing I had to think about differently or it would end up exactly how it had been before. Its a slippery slope. I'd end up ruining it if I wasn't careful so it was in my interest to take care and be very careful.


  • (...continued!)

    I then became interested in the barefoot running idea which has been promoted in the book "born to run" after reading the book on a whim in October last year. It was like a breath of fresh air! Its about a different ethos and the important thing in the book to bear in mind is that its all about listening to your body. Adapting it to a new way of life is not going to happen overnight. It happens in little steps.

    I think the reason this idea appealed to me was because it had been the way I'd been thinking about changing things at the gym, slowing down bit by bit, listening to my body. This itself is something I am not very good at so I constantly make bad choices and then learn the next day. Its about realising that your body and mind can work together but can also not work together and its a very subtle difference if you really watch for it.

    Take it slow, concerntrate on what you want from your run, realise whats making it miserable, what isn't sustainable and most importantly, whats taking your life from you. Eating disorders have been labelled as many things to me, the one label which really stood out was the term "life shrinking". I think with this in mind its worth thinking about just how that same mentality weather not its regarding food or weight or whatever, can grow back. Keep it in check, keep it balanced if you can't stop it and most importantly, communicate where your at with others who can help you.

  • Yes, that was very good post, jennn.

    As you say, we should try to do our best to live with it, and our best to be healthy.

    An eating disorder never goes away, so all we can do is to learn to control it and try to add more interesting things to our life that makes us happy,

     I have noticed that i get worse when something in my life goes wrong. But is something we have to cope with, and do our best to live life happy,

  • Thanks for reading! (Was worried I'd written too much for anyone to want to read but found it hard to edit without missing what I felt was important).

     I do think its different for everyone, I have friends who have to all intents and purposes recovered from ever having an ED, picked up dusted themselves down and carried on regardless. Then there are those who (like me) seem to have this odd mental state which just replays itself over different mediums depending on what I deem important or fixate on. Then there are those inbetween....I guess its we who know our own minds best and the biggest job is learning where your at and becoming wise to it.

     That I believe is a life long balancing act, a task and one which you never fully grasp but taking things at a slower speed, being adaptable and (most importantly) having the support you need (again different for everyone), being able to communicate where your at and what you need are so fundamental yet for so many, so unrealistic but actually are what make that task or balancing act possible.

    But there is a good side to it: empathy and learning more about yourself, about others and looking at life in a way many others either take for granted or will never have the chance to. It adds a whole new depth to life. Life becomes a totally different experience.

  • First of all - well done for admitted and being so honest about having an eating disorder - never an easy thing to do when it is an illness so misunderstood.image

    I too have had an eating disorder for the past 6 years and run about 3 times a week. It's a very difficult balance and despite having spent time in hospital I still have a long way to go re recovery. But running does make me eat - I do accept I need to eat in order to run, like a car needs petrol etc etc. I have always run and done other sports before becoming anorexic late in life ( well mid 40's) and it really is something I enjoy, but nowadays it is also linked sadly to calories and weight loss, which has spoilt in in some ways.

    My dietician always reminds me to have some form of protein, fat and carbs at every meal (quite a challenge for me and not one I succeed with sadly), but it is common sense that in order to run you need to eat - the ED argues this though! Other sports could be good to consider though - I also do pilates which I find beneficial for posture and it doesn't burn calories but helps with suppleness etc which aids running.

    Perhaps keeping a check on blood levels (protein, calcium as well as haemaglobin and iron) may be beneficial and also a bone scan??? Not sure how available this is to you, and I do agree with others that running is good for the soul but needs to be in moderation to keep well and not replace the calorie counting control aspect.

     I was reminded this week that and ED is not really about food at all - it's about another issue(s) that isn't being addressed for a variety of reasons................take care.

  • I essentially use running to replace my eating disorder - being completed fixated on calories, weight, body measurements etc was (is..?) the habit of a lifetime but running gave me something else to measure and obsess over e.g. pace, distance, race results plus I HAD to eat in order to run. But I've just had my second baby and have weight to lose again, not sure how my brain is going to respond in the longer term because (as you said) eating disorders never really go away.

    But while I use running measurements to replace other measurements, it sounds like you've incorporated all the running measures into your eating disorder. Perhaps you could keep running but ban all measurements. No weighing of yourself or food, eat things that you don't know the calorie content of, run without a garmin/stopwatch, essentially make the act of running the reward rather than the 'numbers' you have altered with the run. Might work, might not!

     Good luck and keep us posted x x x x

  • Tim R2-T2Tim R2-T2 ✭✭✭

    There was a piece on the radio this morning Fast forward to about 2:15 and later. There's a guy who suffers the same - too much running. I didn't hear it all.

    Click on the link to listen again - not sure how long they stay up.

    BBC London

  • Hi everyone,

    I agree its completely different for everyone. I developed an eating disorder whilst running a long time ago, I then got injured and it got much much worse and I trained myself into the ground in the gym and still when I returned to running.

    However running also cured me - I started to get quite good and wanted to keep doing well so my way of thinking had to completely change because I was getting injured through not eating enough and it was driving me nuts. Eventually, i was able to fuel my body through the right foods, including protein drinks and bar supplements in order to get the best out of my body in order to compete as well as I could. I am so grateful for this as I fell pregnant not so long after this and was able to nurture my body and my baby as I had managed to overcome the horrible monster! To be perfectly honest, I dont think I would have been able to conceive had I not beaten it.

    I wholeheartedly agree with a previous post about admitting it - it is the first step as they say, but keep on that roll and keep the momentum going. I knew for years that I had a problem but I had no intention of addressing it, so keep focused.  

    Jenn I have never heard it referred to as life shrinking but it is absolutely spot on and I will remember that!

    Good luck, xx

  • Thing with having a past history of an ED (weather or not the running has picked up in place of the ED or not) is that with most people, you may also have a history of malnutrition. This can affect you in different ways.

     Eg with osteoperosis, even if it has recovered (and tust me, it doesn't recover for everyone!) newer bones are weaker then older bones. Stress fractures to full blown breaks, your at risk. Add to this lack of fats which often tend to stay around for much longer depending on just how close to full body recovery you have come (and then add to this at least 2 years for your body to restore and replace what you've maganed to become deficient in) things like joint pain and similar also come into play. Add to this many fat soluable vitamins, many others that are in foods so easily really does put you in a risky position when attempting what is at its basis, hard core body work.

    Going easy and listening to your body is something you really need to do but for most of us, this doesn't come easy. Its actually something I've only realised I have not been doing and that was as the result of many injuries. (Too little too late? I really hope not!)

  • Sarah, that's what I've been doing lately - trying to forget the numbers/measurements. I don't time my runs, and I'm really really trying not to look at the calorie content of the foods I eat ( although this is hard because I still have a stored knowledge in my head of so many food products...). I've made myself start eating things I WANT to eat, as I know this is what I need to do to change. Been having a bit of a panic today though as I feel I've lost control, but need to keep telling myself I can't get back into it. I need to let go. Eating disorders only stall you in wherever your life is going. And having two kids under the age of 3 I don't want to remember my early mother years as being run by food and exercise obsession when it's the happy moments with kids I want to remember. Have to keep reminding myself that the ED only holds me back. What I can't break is this running thing. I just can't do it without constantly battling to stop it being about calories. Maybe as long as I run I will always be consumed by the thoughts of calories and burning them etc etc. If I give up completely it could help me lower the intensity of the thoughts and obsessions. I don't know. I've been referred to our NHS eating disorders service (at long last - only took 7 years) so maybe they can tell me what to do. If they told me to stop I wouldn't feel so bad as making that decision myself. It's so confusing! I struggle to make up my mind all the time. Which is how I know it's always going to be hard to keep the decision to get better without changing again and again. So hard!
  • Summerrain, good for you on getting the referal, (not sure if its too patronising to say "well done" or the right thing to say "congratulations"!)

    In regards to wanting someone else to tell you to stop: unfortunatly this is the one thing that all good therapists and counsellors will not do: the fact you cannot or find it hard to empower yourself to stop, thats your problem and something to work on, they telling you to stop/do this/don't do that stops you working, saves you from the responsibility and so risk of personal failure in the same way as if they do this. It also puts you in a position of dependance which is not what you want nor what will benefit you in the long run.

    Therapy is about working alongside someone else (a professional) to come to grips with things, tackle them and learning to live a different way. Its about learning from things, healing or learning from them (or both!) and moving onwards but mindfully.

    The therapy can really work, but please don't wait for them to instruct you or tell you what to do or even how to do things, you'll be unwell a great deal longer if you wait to hear the answer!

  • Summerain, well done for getting support from professionals - I hope you find it beneficial. They may or may not tell you to stop running - but consider your weight, BMI etc etc as well as the psychological impact of either continuing or stopping running.

     Someone I knew told me ' you can't have your cake and eat it!' not the most approriate sentence to use for me with an ED, but I know what he was saying - 'something' has to give to be well and healthy. 

    Keep positive and stay well, take care.

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