Let’s stop ignoring eating disorders in track and field.
As track and field athletes, we are constantly compared to our competitors in terms of times, accolades and in size, and we are always trying to be better. Our measure of success is so narrow in track and field, confined to time and place. Because of this, eating disorders are rampant. And they are not addressed appropriately because of the denial, shame and stigma around them.
I’ve competed on every level of track and field, and this issue has been a constant thread throughout. I think I would be hard pressed to find a distance athlete who hasn’t at some point struggled with their relationship with food or body image – I know I have. Through high school and university, I would compare myself to teammates who had a vastly different body type than me. I would look at race photos and think “Am I lean enough to run fast?”, “Do I look like the other women?” It wasn’t until I started doing better in track and feeling more confident in my abilities that I let the way I look racing become secondary to my performance.
As a community, we need to stop turning a blind eye. We need to stop pretending that this is only an NCAA problem. We need to take ownership and responsibility for this issue in our sport. We need to start talking about this openly as it is vitally important to the health of all athletes, female and male.
The purpose of this post is to spur discussion of what really needs to happen to tackle eating disorders in our sport. We know that they exist and they will continue to exist because of the endurance and weight bearing nature of most of the events in track and field. We need to move from talking about it, to actually being able to help athletes that will fall victim to eating disorders.
The Coach’s Responsibility
A coach of any team should be an agent for change. Coaches and leaders need to face the pressure to be thin head on, because every single runner deals with this at some point. Every runner is going to want to alter their body to be better at the sport, and coaches need to equip athletes with a healthy and safe way to do this. Athletes need to hear a message from their coach that the athletes that make it to the highest levels and have the longest, most joyful careers learn how to manage their weight in a healthy way. And that should be the goal for all athletes.
Coaches should create an environment where the long term health of the athlete is more important than their ability to build a program or score points at a championship. Coaches, especially in highly competitive programs, need to start valuing the long term health of their athletes and recognizing that poor decisions can impact them for the rest of their life, and a few good performances just isn’t worth it.
As a track and field community, we need to start recognizing and commending university programs that have the greatest number of athletes who continue to run, professionally or recreationally, after graduation. The longevity and health of athletes needs to become just as important as how fast they will be while in a program, and we need to encourage high school students to choose a university program with this in mind.
Empower the Team
While the coach has this responsibility, the reality is that not all coaches in all programs are incentivized to address eating disorders. Some of the responsibility for removing the stigma and silence around eating disorders also needs to be placed on athletes on the team.
All teams, whether it be a high school, university or professional team, need to create a culture with a healthy relationship with body image, food and comparison amongst one another. Each athlete on the team needs to be empowered and educated on how to address these issues.
Most of the time, the response of teammates is to isolate athletes who are struggling with an eating disorder because of the shame and denial around them. But we need to move away from these feelings and become more comfortable with talking about these issues within teams. We need to take on the responsibility of calling it out for what it is and being open and trying to help find a solution for someone who is struggling.
What Every Team Needs
There has been some implementation in both Canadian and American track and field programs of a medical clearance procedure where the athlete gets a physical and is then permitted to train and race based on a bill of good health.
Beyond this there are many other lab tests that can be done to try to determine if an athlete is nourishing themselves. If there is concern around an athlete’s health, these tests are recommended from the National Eating Disorders Association:
- Complete Blood Count (CBC)
- Blood work measuring complete metabolic profile: Sodium, Chloride, Potassium, Glucose, Blood Urea Nitrogen, Creatinine, Total Protein, Albumin, Globulin, Calcium, Carbon Dioxide, AST, Alkaline Phosphates, Total Bilirubin
- Serum magnesium
- Thyroid Screen (T3, T4, TSH) Electrocardiogram (ECG)
Athletes who are exhibiting warning signs of an eating disorder (including weight loss, fatigue, over-training, frequent injuries, refusal to eat with team members) should undergo these tests. Eating disorders exist in secrecy and denial, but by performing these medical tests, a coach will have a medical reason to be concerned.
I believe that every track and field program should build a relationship with a local eating disorder specialist. A coach or an athlete may be able to recognize an eating disorder, but neither of these individuals are equipped with the skills to treat an eating disorder. The best thing a coach can do is express concern and refer an athlete to a specialist. An athlete may be unreceptive to the idea that anything is wrong, so many of these conversations may need to happen before an athlete is open to seeking help.
In my opinion, and on the recommendation of the National Eating Disorder association, coaches should not automatically curtail athletic participation if an athlete is found to have an eating problem unless warranted by a medical condition. Only one third of people every fully recover from an eating disorder, and it is possible to continue running while successfully managing an eating disorder. Running or any sport can contribute to an athlete’s mental and emotional health which may help in the recovery of an eating disorder.
A Call To The Elites
As professionals and role models for young athletes and even our peers, we have to be examples of health and strength. We have to show that we respect our bodies by taking care of them, eating healthy, and educating athletes on body composition and the scientific approach to race weight. We need to encourage athletes to try to have an unemotional relationship with your weight, because it really is just a number and there is a wider range in weight for success than you may think.