Eating disorders and dysfunctional relationships with food are rife within sport, but they only serve to ruin your running in the long term.

I’ve wanted to write about this topic for quite sometime, however it’s such a personal (and lengthy) journey that I’ve struggled to find the correct way to talk about it. I have a long history with my eating disorder; first being diagnosed as a teenager and going into treatment, and then multiple layers of recovery and relapsing throughout my twenties.

When I became a FrontRunner three years ago I wasn’t in a great place with food but was ticking along – I joined the team as an Olympic-distance triathlete (although now I’m ‘just a runner’) and my weight was on the lower side of normal but was still within the healthy BMI range, but if I’m honest my relationship with food was deteriorating rapidly at that stage. I ended up pulling out of all of my summer triathlons as I felt pretty burnt out and was then diagnosed with anaemia, I also avoided all of the FrontRunner meet-ups because the thought of being around sociable people and sharing good food together felt like something I couldn’t do. Eating disorders really do force you to isolate yourself from fun. By the middle of the summer I felt better energy-wise thanks to the medicine I was taking for my iron levels and getting into a better routine with my eating, and so I decided to step up to longer distance races with my first half marathon – it turns out half marathon was a distance I could cover fairly well and I soon fell in love with running longer.

Running longer gave me such a high, but of course I didn’t think things through properly and subsequently failed to fuel appropriately for the increase in mileage – I lost my period at that point too which is a sign of RED-S (reduced energy deficiency in sport) and is always a huge indicator that something is wrong. As the weeks moved on I started to get into a routine of running every day, again on inadequate fuelling. Most days I would just have breakfast and a small dinner…I still don’t know how I actually functioned on such little food but I was on autopilot and had no life outside of going to work and then doing as much exercise as possible during my free time. By the autumn my weight had dropped to the lowest it had been in about 7 years and I was creating more and more irrational rules with food – I mean, do you know how difficult it is to have a meal when you can’t have any food group touching on the plate?

That December we had another FrontRunner meet up in Bath – I knew I needed to make more of an effort to be social if I wanted to stay on the team so I decided to attend. Whilst it was delightful to see my teammates, it ended up being one of the most challenging weekends food-wise I’ve ever experienced. We had pizza on the Friday night when everyone arrived which was one of my big fear foods at the time – I couldn’t eat it and instead spent my time cutting it into small pieces within the box so it looked like I was eating, and then closed the lid before anyone could really notice that I hadn’t eaten a thing. I had breakfast the next day, and then managed to skip lunch because we were in a big communal kitchen and I knew that if I avoided talking to one person for too long I’d be able to work my way around the room and nobody would notice me not eating. We were then at a restaurant that evening which made it impossible to avoid food, but at the same time I didn’t want to eat. I think I just had a few spoonful’s of rice on my plate that evening which I thought would mean nobody would notice me trying to avoid food, though in hindsight who actually only eats three spoons of rice for dinner?! Rationality wasn’t my strong point back then.

The great thing about being a FrontRunner though is that your team is always looking out for you. Whilst I may have felt like I was hiding things quite well, it soon became apparent that people were concerned. Our Community Manager, Holly, had a talk with me that evening and said she wanted to put me in touch with her friend who was a dietitian. At that point I still didn’t think there was anything wrong so was reluctant to move forward with this, but in the week after our weekend away I received a few messages of concern from my teammates too.

I somewhat-begrudgingly and half-heartedly started working with Renee McGregor, a sports and eating disorder dietitian, in January 2018 and she made it very clear right from the start that I needed to stop running every day and I needed to restore my weight back to a healthy BMI which would mean more consistent fuelling. It took me a good 5 months before I actually started to make the necessary changes in order to get better because I was clinging onto that idea of not being sick enough or not being a low enough weight, despite the fact that I still had no period, had no life outside of running, couldn’t spare any time at the weekend to see friends as I needed to use any moment for exercise, had a truly terrible immune system, and fainted on numerous occasions which landed me in hospital.

If I’m honest, I’m surprised Renee had the patience to work with me – the early days were not easy at all but eventually, I think after a significant meltdown where I couldn’t fit my running kit in my hand luggage for a work trip to Rome, I started to listen. That work trip was an enforced break from running for three days and whilst it felt like the end of the world the night before the trip, when I returned back to the UK I finally understood what it felt like not to have to push my body to its limit – and that was when I started to trust the process and started restoring weight. What I will add here is that my ED was never really about what my body looked like but was more about managing my stress and anxiety, which ended up being deflected onto my body image and self-worth – I was so scared of losing control which is what I thought restoring weight meant, but realistically when you are in such a restrictive cycle you’re not really in control of anything.

People also kept telling me that I would run faster if I restored weight but I refused to believe them at the time, and yet within that first month and a half of taking recovery seriously I managed to knock 12 minutes off my half marathon time and I think I had only restored about 4lbs of weight at that point. I still struggled to make rational decisions based on how healthy my body was and decided to run an ultra marathon on no training and against Renee’s advice just a week after that half marathon, but I was very disciplined during that race and made sure I ate throughout.

I ended up restoring about 10lbs of weight in 2018 and had some excellent successes in my races for the latter part of the year, and whilst I no longer work with Renee now, I do still consider myself to be in recovery and it is something that I have to make a conscious decision to work towards everyday, but it feels worth it. I still feel that same anxiety when something happens during the day which prevents me from getting out on my run, but I’m able to sit with that anxiety and accept that it’s just life and you won’t always be able to fit everything in. Ultimately I’ve spent a lot of time understanding where my control issues originate from, because it’s never really about the food, and now know that when life feels chaotic I don’t have to respond in a harmful way. I also have so much more freedom with food and can eat regularly throughout the day, and around other people which is a game changer in terms of my social life – I’ve even used pizza as pre-race fuelling. Recovery has really helped me to form friendships too; I’m no longer afraid to spend time with people in case food is involved, but I can also be a lot more honest with where I’m at with people which also helps in terms of their own level of understanding.

Experiencing recovery whilst categorising myself as a runner has been a completely different experience from recovery as a teenager. I think the reason why my recovery has been successful this time round is because the people around me, who I love and respect, helped me to understand that running isn’t about punishing yourself or burning calories, and yet this was what I was so focused on. As I allowed myself to restore weight I started to find it easier to process things inside my head and with that came an understanding of why running is important to me and how fortunate I am to have a body that is able to run. I think refinding my respect for both my body and my sport and understanding the need for a healthy body in order to gain the success I’m looking for in running is ultimately what has helped me this time round.

If you’re currently in that vicious cycle and recognise any of the behaviours I’ve mentioned in this post – please reach out to somebody. Life can get better but it takes a lot of courage to make that first step, and then a lot of continuous hard work after that, but I promise the life you gain is more than worth it.

written by

Victoria Stears

Head of Global Marketing - Sports/Education Sector from London

Age group: 34

half marathon 10k olympic distance triathlon ultra marathon swim-run marathon