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The Dangers of Eating Disorders for Runners

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ROTH, GERMANY - JULY 10:  Chrissie Wellington of England wins the Challenge Roth Triathlon with a new long distance world record on July 10, 2011 in Roth, Germany.  (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for Challenge Roth)
ROTH, GERMANY - JULY 10: Chrissie Wellington of England wins the Challenge Roth Triathlon with a new long distance world record on July 10, 2011 in Roth, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for Challenge Roth)
Getty Images for Challenge Roth

Chrissie Wellington currently holds the women's world record for all Ironman distance races (8:18:13 at the Challenge Roth triathalon last July) and has won four world championships. Not only has the British endurance athlete never been defeated over the Ironman distance, she holds the five fastest times ever recorded by a woman in the race.

Chrissie Wellington is, in short, a badass.

She's also a survivor of serious eating disorders. In her forthcoming autobiography, Wellington details how her insecurity as a young adult led to a struggle with anorexia and bulimia. While her family successfully intervened Wellington told The Guardian newspaper she now gets emails from other female athletes and recognizes the exact same symptoms.

"The victims of such illnesses are often very ambitious, outwardly successful young women who pursue these ideas of control and achievement," she said. "We're driven, compulsive, obsessive, competitive, persistent and seek perfection. That can be channelled incredibly negatively."

This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and it's a good time to take a look at the problem of eating disorders among runners and endurance athletes, particularly for women.

As many as 10 million females and 1 million males in the U.S. battle anorexia or bulimia, according to National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). As many as 13 million more struggle with binge eating disorder and the numbers of those who have disordered eating due to an obsession with dieting is believed to be even greater.

The biggest misconception is that the condition is a willing choice made by the sufferer. The National Institute of Mental Health describes eating disorders as serious illnesses with a biological basis that is modified and influenced by emotional and cultural factors. In this respect it's similar to other addictive behaviors and, like those conditions, recovery is far more difficult than simply deciding to eat more once again.

Running can become part of this situation since those who are battling with an eating disorder often turn to increased physical activity in order to "burn off" unwanted weight. While running can be an effective tool to lose weight, with eating disorders the exercise itself "becomes an obsession," say those who have suffered from the condition.

For athletes, the danger can be more subtle. According to the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals there are disturbing similarities between 'good athlete' stereotypes and eating disorder traits. The problem begins with the mistaken belief only one body size is acceptable for a chosen sport.

Losing weight can be justified as part of the effort to improve performance but then develops into a serious disorder. Instead of increasing performance the likelihood of injury increases and the compulsion to do even more creates a destructive feedback loop.

To discern the difference between a reasonable diet regimen required for an endurance event a eating disorder can be extremely difficult, said Diane Israel, a psychologist and former endurance athlete whose 2008 documentary Beauty Mark explored the issue.

"If your body is breaking down. If you are constantly stressed and exhausted. If you running isn't helping your life but making things worse you need to look at it," she said. "If you are being run by the running rather than running for the running is when there's a problem. That's when you have to have the conversation and seek out consultation and support."

NEDA has a helpline for people seeking assistance or who need more information about the condition, 1-800-931-2237 or visit this page on their website. Here is their checklist of signs that can indicate a disorder.

  • Drastic weight loss.
  • Preoccupation with counting calories.
  • The need to weigh yourself several times a day.
  • Excessive exercise.
  • Binge eating or purging.
  • Food rituals, like taking tiny bites, skipping food groups or re-arranging food on the plate.
  • Avoiding meals or only wanting to eat alone.
  • Taking laxatives or diuretics.
  • Smoking to curb appetite.
  • Persistent view of yourself as fat that worsens despite weight loss.