#NEDAWEEK (National Eating Disorder Awareness Week)
Neda Week’s theme this year is: Hindsight is 2020
Trigger warning: This post contains a discussion of eating disorders, both my personal experience and a dialogue on the existence of eating disorders in the wider endurance community. Please consider whether this post may be upsetting to you or others before reading or sharing.
So here’s a question:
Can a person with a history of disordered eating ever have weight-loss goals that are mentally and physically healthy? Can that person act on those goals without triggering a relapse?
Many of my athletes tell me that weight loss is a part of their training goals. I always counter by asking if they have ever felt like eating was a disruptive part of their life. If an athlete has a history of disordered eating, I don’t feel I’m qualified to address weight management with them. Those questions need to be addressed with sports psychologists, nutritionists, and doctors.
But if an athlete hasn’t struggled with eating disorders in the past, discussing weight management and long-term plans for a calorically balanced diet can be a productive part of our work together.
I envy those athletes. What wouldn’t I give to be able to address my own nutrition, caloric balance, weight, and body composition without being terrified of triggering an eating disorder relapse?
In my 2018 blog post about eating disorders, I wrote, “Only in looking back do I recognize my first symptoms of ED; I had no idea what was happening at the time, and therefor no way to help myself. But once in its clutches, an eating disorder is hard to escape from.”
In hindsight, I can see that by tying my weight and my food choices to my self-worth, as I did over a decade ago, I gave myself a binary choice of ways to live: I can either be obsessed with and controlled by my eating and my weight, or I can try not to think about it at all.
In recent years, the latter option has given me relief from the decade-long cycle of restricting and losing weight, and over-eating and gaining weight. Achieving a state where I hardly think about my weight or nutrition has been a major accomplishment, and I’m proud of myself for committing to the journey it took to get here. But I work with athletes all the time who are successfully implementing sustainable changes to their diet, loosing the fat they want to lose, and gaining the muscle they want to gain. Their motivations are varied: they want to look a certain way, they want to perform in a specific sport or event, they want more energy, or they just plain want to feel better.
Naturally, this has led me to a three-part personal reflection:
- I want to be able to do that too.
- I have a history of disordered eating.
- Can I do it?
Body composition is of course part of an athlete’s overall performance and health. Let’s take a really obvious example: if your training goals are 100% focused on being able to do more pull-ups, it doesn’t make any sense to strength train in such a way that will increase lower body muscle mass. Huge quads won’t help you do a pull-up, and they’ll be dead weight that you have to carry up to the bar and back.
Body fat and muscle distribution affect performance. Nothing productive comes from denying that. The problem is when we oversimplify this and say, being skinny is always better.
In hindsight, I can see that’s the mistake 15 year-old Carly made.
Here’s an interesting tidbit I came across years ago, while learning about hawks, not about eating disorders: birds of prey have what is referred to as a “flight weight,” an ideal weight for their body that allows them the best balance of health and efficiency. That is, at their flight weight, they are strong enough to support all the physiologic systems of a healthy body, strong enough to fly well and hunt and carry prey, and lean enough to be carrying no unnecessary weight while they fly. At flight weight, they perform without using excess energy.
Hm. Being strong while moving efficiently and without excess energy use. Sounds exactly like what we endurance athletes train our bodies to do.
But I made a mistake in my formative years, and not just with regards to my eating. Instead of looking at training and performance as ever-changing goals that will be subject to setbacks and challenges, young Carly viewed performance as the only measure of my self-worth, and having the “perfect” body was part of performance. If I wasn’t getting the results, I wasn’t working hard enough. That made me a bad person, and that was that.
It took an Athletic Identity Crisis to learn that sport can be something other than a measure of self worth. In order to understand what it really means to love my sport, I had to completely lose everything it had previously meant to me. Only after confronting the false meaning I had given my performance, and the false identity I had taken on as a result, could I truly say I am in this for the long run.
I have unlearned the old patterns of thinking that led me to believe my value was tied to my performance. That has given me the freedom to train and compete in a healthy and joyful way. It will be a critically important tool as I rebuild my athletic body in the aftermath of Over Training Syndrome.
I have high goals for my OTS recovery. I intend to come out of this a stronger and more capable athlete than I’ve ever been before. Not to satisfy a need to please some arbitrary system of judgement, but because I want to. It’s what makes me feel good. Feeling ready as I do to take on this daunting task, I find myself reflecting once again on flight weight.
What if I could rebuild my relationship with eating and body composition in the same manner? What if I transformed what used to be a system of self-judgement into a system of choices designed to help me feel better than I’ve ever felt before? Can I learn, for the first time, to trust my body’s cues for how it would like to be fueled, just as I’m learning to trust my body’s cues for the resources it requires in order to optimally train and recover?
Could I add to my list of goals: tune in to my body’s nutritional requests? Could I add: reduce excess body fat that doesn’t aid my athletic performance? Is it okay that my reasons for these goals include a desire to perform more efficiently, a desire to look slightly different than I do now, and an annoyance with having bigger-than-necessary boobs bouncing around on my chest when I run? Can those motivations be compatible with mental, emotional, and physical health?
Well, if one of my athletes without a history of eating disorders asked me that question, the answer would be a resounding yes.
Am I ready to embrace these goals myself, without fear of triggering a relapse?
Birds, undisturbed by social media and self-worth dysphoria, intuitively eat the food they need to ideally match their activity. Am I ready to do the same?
Am I ready to finally find my flight weight?
If you want to talk about eating disorders in the world of endurance sports, leave me a comment below or send me a message. You can also find this post on Instagram @carlyoutside_thebox. If you want to catch all the latest blog posts, be sure to join my email list.
While I love it when my writing resonates enough to make you want to share, I once again ask that you share this post cautiously and with respect for the struggle someone close to you may be engaged with, whether you can see it or not.
One last thing: when I wrote about my experience with eating disorders in 2018, I said the following:
“Personally, I don’t know if I will ever truly be without my eating disorder. That’s one of the tragedies of the illness: though I may look healthy, act healthy, and even feel healthy, I’m not truly healthy. And a relapse, big or small, could be just around the corner.”
The questions I address in today’s blog post to me clearly say that I seriously think being ED-free could be a part of my very near future. Well, gee whiz.
Best wishes to you all,