I finally got around to reading Chrissie Wellington’s autobiography, A Life Without Limits. Of particular interest to me was how Chrissie wrote about her struggles with eating disorders as an adolescent and young adult. Here’s a passage concerning her first bout with bulimia: “Soon you lose sight of the original object of the exercise—to achieve and maintain a certain look. Bulimia never worked in that sense, anyway. . . I never lost any weight as a result.”
By coincidence, I’d come across a new study on eating disorders in elite female runners shortly before I picked up Chrissie’s memoir, and the combination of the two reads inspired this post. Runners who go down the path of disordered eating typically start in this dead-end direction because they believe that losing weight will help them run better and that not eating or purging what they eat will help them lose weight. It’s more complicated than that, of course—matters of body image and control are part of the mix as well—but I think it’s fair to say that improved running performance is the primary benefit high-level competitive runners seek through the disordered eating.
Here’s the question: Does it work? I’ve already given away the answer in the title of this piece. And it comes from the new study I’ve alluded to, which, although it does not directly address the question of whether disordered eating improves running performance, does shed some light on the matter. Led by Sophia Berg of Central Washington University, it was published in the International Journal of Exercise Science under the descriptive title, “Self-Reported History of Eating Disorders, Training, Weight Control Methods, and Body Satisfaction in Elite Female Runners Competing at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.” Of the 396 women who participated in the race, 140 completed a thirty-four survey on diet, training, and body image. Following are my three big takeaways from the results:
Disordered eating does NOT confer a performance advantage.
Berg’s main finding was that 32 percent of the runners surveyed reported past eating disorders and another 6 percent reported a current eating disorder. Those are big numbers, and like all dietary self-reports they should not be assumed to be perfectly accurate, but consider that an estimated 5 percent of American women in the general population have an eating disorder, and the percentage is substantially higher among the demographics most represented at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon (younger, white, affluent). In other words, these athletes were no more likely to report a current eating disorder than a bunch of women picked at random on the street.
It’s notable also that past eating disorders outnumbered current ones by more than five to one. This raises the possibility that overcoming their eating disorder was a major factor in enabling many of these runners to achieve the Olympic Trials qualifying standard. I’m speculating, but there are case studies we can point to in support of it. One is Maria Langholz, who went from a 1:29 half marathoner with an eating disorder to a 2:38 marathoner after recovering. She’ll need to shave another minute off her PR to qualify for the 2024 trials, but that’s no much to ask for when you consider that she completed her first marathon in 3:23.
Another interesting finding of the study was that runners without an active eating disorder were marginally faster than those with one (2:39:49 to 2:40:12). Taken together, all of these numbers suggest that disordered eating does not achieve its aim of improving performance in distance runners.
It’s possible to overcome the harm done by disordered eating.
Perhaps the most encouraging news in Berg’s study is its suggestion that it is possible to overcome the harm done by disordered eating. Nearly one in three participants in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Women’s Marathon had done just that in qualifying for the event. While it is next to impossible for a runner to achieve sustained excellence with an ongoing eating disorder, the drag imposed on running fitness by disordered eating is seldom permanent.
Disordered eating remains far too prevalent among competitive female runners.
It’s not all good news in this study. Eating disorders remain far too common among elite women runners (as they do in many other cohorts). I believe the best way to bring down the numbers is to do what I’ve done in this article, which is to share concrete evidence that disordered eating is not an effective means to improve running performance. The psychology behind the impulse toward disordered eating is not entirely logical and therefore cannot be fully dispelled by logic. But the thing that runners who have this impulse will respond to is concrete examples of high-achieving role models who got where they are not by developing an eating disorder but by kicking one.
If you or a loved one need help, please refer to: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/help/coaches-trainers