Friday, September 16, 2011

Running To Be Thin

Sometimes I hate writing about food/weight issues because the subject is so LOADED. Yet, it is such an important issue, especially for athletes. And, with the Biggest Loser starting on Monday, I’ve had weight loss and exercise on my mind.

First, let me reiterate, I am not a doctor or nutritionist, but you already knew that. I write based on research and personal experience. Take what I say with a grain of salt and go do your own research or consult your doctor. I like to bring important issues to the surface, but I don’t pretend to know it all or have all of the answers.

Many people will tell you they start running to lose weight. Running can help shed the pounds quickly because it is a lot of bang for your buck. Running = intense exercise. You burn a lot of calories in a short period of time (about 100 calories per mile depending on weight/height, etc.).

Running to lose weight is all fine and good if it is part of a sensible weight loss program that is balanced with healthy eating, rest and all of those other good things. In my opinion, it become a slippery slope when people train for marathons to lose weight. Restricting calories while putting in big time miles can be dangerous and lead to all sorts of complications, most notably that your performance will suck because you just don’t have the energy due to lack of fuel. To me, this is like being pregnant and trying to diet. Not a good idea on so many levels.

The other scenario is the runner who has a decent BMI, but has developed strict and rigid eating and exercise patterns to avoid gaining a single ounce. This runner may not have a full blown eating disorder, but may have obsessive tendencies about food and exercise which are taking them in an unhealthy direction. It is easy to disguise restricted eating under the veil of, “Oh, I am just getting healthy and making better choices.” In reality, these actions are may be promoting overall poor health.

There are usually deep seated reasons why people have disordered eating. Not feeling good enough, needing control, wanting better performance. The list goes on.

Signs of Disordered Eating (from HERE): 

  • You avoid multiple foods due to self-diagnosed food allergies
  • You experience chronic or numerous gastrointestinal problems that interfere with pre-exercise fueling (e.g., not being able to eat breakfast before races or lunch before afternoon practice)
  • You undertake long training efforts and marathons on water alone due to being unable to "tolerate" sports drinks
  • You have unbalanced vegetarian eating styles—particularly among young women
  • You have extensive self-imposed "food rules" or rigid categories of good and bad foods
  • You eat secretively or eating differently with others (only acceptable healthy foods) than when alone
  • You avoid food-related social situations such as family gatherings or team outings

Compulsive exercising can go hand in hand with disordered eating. The two make an especially dangerous combination.

Signs of Compulsive Exercising (from HERE):

  • You suffer symptoms of overtraining syndrome.
  • You force yourself to exercise even if you don't feel well.
  • You almost never exercise for fun.
  • Every time you exercise, you go as fast or hard as you can.
  • You experience severe stress and anxiety if you miss a workout.
  • You miss family obligations because you have to exercise.
  • You calculate how much to exercise based on how much you eat.
  • You would rather exercise than get together with friends.
  • You can't relax because you think you're not burning calories.
  • You worry that you'll gain weight if you skip exercising for one day.
  • You have extensive self-imposed "food rules" or rigid categories of good and bad foods
  • You avoid multiple foods due to self-diagnosed food allergies

Be honest. Do you see yourself in any of these things?

I have to look in the mirror too. People sometimes point the finger at me – you are so thin, you exercise so much. True and true. But, what needs to be looked at is a person’s relationship to food. Much in the same way you would look at an alcoholic's relationship to alcohol. Is it obsessive, unhealthy, compulsive, out of control, detrimental? Or is it balanced and life-sustaining? 

Food and I are friends. I did go through a time in my 20s when food was the enemy.  I was about 30 pounds heavier than I am now. I restricted what I ate and counted calories. It wasn’t until I changed my view of food (something to be enjoyed, something to nourish and fuel the body) that my relationship to food changed.

A couple of the above bullets do apply to me – I have overtrained (hence, two stress fractures). I have also been known to go as fast and hard as I can (TWSS) during my workouts. These two issues were not, however, related to my need to burn more calories or lose weight. My actions were due to lack of education about proper training (which incorporates rest/recovery) and my misguided thinking that more intense and frequent training meant better performance. WRONG.

The truth is, I usually gain weight during training and I am fine with that. It tells me my body needs the extra weight to meet the demands of my workouts. My body type is small, as is my mother’s and my aunt’s.  Bottom line, I cannot perform well if I am not eating well.

I also have a ten year old daughter who desperately needs me to set a good example for her in a culture that worships skinny magazine models and a “you can a never be thin enough “ attitude. As her positive  role model, I can’t afford to engage in unhealthy behavior. You will NEVER hear me say the words “diet” or “calories.” I don’t talk of pants fitting too tight or something being “too fattening.” I model moderation, balanced eating and moving one’s body in a way that makes one happy.

Only you know what is going on with you. Sometimes people are even good at lying to themselves. This is such a prevalent issue that Women’s Running Magazine reports that 60% of women will have disordered eating at some point.

How are you doing? We all have unhealthy tendencies at times. Do you have an awareness of yours?


PS: Get your SUAR shirts HERE. They will only be on sale for about another week.


  1. Great post and yes I can see how this one needed more time. In the last month or so of my training I have made food 1st priority and running 2nd. I feel like I am on steriods cos my runs are going so well. (not on steriods promise)

    I also follow the training schedule to the T cos the people that put it togethere are SO smart I would be an idiot not to pay attention.

    So for the most part I am have healthy relationship with food. Lost 25lbs over the last year and a half by doing bootcamp once a week, running often and portion control. Didn't take a single thing out of my diet. I love my puffed Cheetos and soda, just not all day everyday anymore.

  2. I gained a little when I trained too. I felt thinner, I looked thinner but the scale said I had gained. I consider myself to eat pretty healthy but I know I ate more pizza and cookies during training too.

  3. I can honestly say that I have a good to great perspective on all of this ... now.

    I don't calorie count either consumptive or utilized. I don't gauge how much exercise to get based on how much I eat or how much I weigh (I don't even know how much I weigh). I lived with a woman who was bulimic back when I used to row. I did know what I weighed back then. I did have a vague notion of caloric intake. And I did miss out on things because of training. I said it was because I was goal-driven in a sport with a weight class (max 130, boat avg 125). But it was definitely a dysfunctional environment.

    I want training to ENHANCE my life... not BE my life :)

    Great post, Beth.

  4. This is a really loaded topic but I like how you tackle it. I came to running later in life and it started hand in hand with my WW routine. I lost a lot of weight and have - more or less - kept it off. But i have met a lot of women (and men) who run and who use it to hide an eating disorder. I can see them ticking all of your boxes. It's interesting. It's a sport where the winners are thin and so that is what you could strive for.

    On the other hand, I was told last week by someone that I was "no fun" anymore because I DO skip social occasions which are hugely alcoholic (I love a glass of wine or two but more than that is no good for me) and so running has changed my life. In my defense, I think that our social lives in the UK are very much based around alcohol. And lots of it.

    Thank you for this post. Food for thought. Ha.

  5. i have a friend who is so obsessive of food it has carried into her childrens eating. They are so restricted! They have no doctor diagnosed allergies yet she limits all gluten foods, chocolate, berries, nut butter, processed foods, and sugar. They eat only salad and veggi meals. The are miserable. Other friends have raised concerns but she hides behind the "Intolerant" stomach. I wonder at what point does it become child abuse? Heavy thoughts and topics today, but wow it hits home with my social group.

  6. Ilsa needs some food.

    I really cannot ever imagine having issues with food simply b/c my crazy self is really obsessed with getting all the right nutrients for a lifetime of healthy eating. Sometimes I think I might be too strict that way, but I hope not. The biggest issue, like you pointed out, is having a daughter and the need for ensuring she learns not be afraid of calories but to embrace healthy eating.

  7. Thanks for posting this - when I was teaching high school, this issue came up scarily often. So important to focus on feeling strong & fit than on looking skinny.

    When I'm training for a big race, I also look thinner (and more athletic) but weigh more. I've pretty much disregarded the scale at this point. :)

  8. I have been meaning to blog about this topic in a different kind of way, but haven't gotten to it yet. Since I doubt that my mom and grandma are reading your blog, I can be a little more honest here.

    I was one of those who thought I needed to train for a marathon to reach my goal weight and prove that I am just as fit as "skinny girls." Training was an extremely slippery slope because I kept getting told that if I could just lose 10 more pounds I go be so much faster. Adding more miles and decreasing my calories didn't help and usually ended only in heavy binging. The worst was AFTER the marathon when all of a sudden I wasn't running 45 miles a week, I almost had postpartum, and the worst part was that I had isolated myself from friends during training and was a lone.

    Recently, I got a grip on things and realized that if I really want to lose weight, I might have to lay off on the running. How crazy that sounds to me and so many other people who do chronic cardio. The truth is that you get fit in the gym and lose weight in the kitchen. I am now understanding that if I want to stay an athlete (or really just be healthy) I need to put feeding my body healthy fuel over losing weight. The stronger I implement this in my life the easier it is for me to not think about food (what I'm eating, not eating, want to eat, wish I could eat..) all of the time.

  9. You've got to read Carolina John's "How I Got Fast" post. Great perspective on getting lean and carrying a little less weight across the finish line.

  10. Thanks for being the voice of reason for so many, Beth! After struggling with weight for years, I lost 60lbs after our 4th child was born and vowed to change my relationship with food FOR GOOD. With running and biking, I wasn't loosing much after that (or very little) and with 15lbs to "goal" I decided that I didn't care what the scale said. I'm eating a plant based diet, working out, and if my body wants to weigh this *number* then so be it.

  11. When I started running again a couple years ago, I lost a bunch of weight quick-ish, but then hit a plateau, which I'm of two minds of. I'm at a healthy BMI, so I don't need to lose more weight, but there's 10 lbs that I kind of would like gone. That being said, I have to be really careful about my eating. I got really weird about eating (or, more accurately not eating) for a few months in high school, and it's something that I worry could creep up on me again if I actively try to restrict my eating. I'm kind of in a place where, if the weight comes off, great, but I don't really try to help it along since I don't like where that could lead me.

    I totally know that this anecdote kind of goes nowhere.

    Anyway, I do sometimes skip social events because of running. I try to make it for at least a short period of time, but, after running on 4 hours sleep and a hangover, I decided to try to avoid that experience again.

  12. Having been on a restricted diet for many years now and my children as well, we have learned through experience that going to the doctor to get a food allergy diagnosis is crap. We had, for example, My son Jupiter tested both with the blood test as well as the skin test and done by two different allergist at two different times and all four tests came back contradicting the others. The allergists then said that that was common with food testing and that INTOLERANCES can not be diagnosed through blood or skin but through careful rotation diets and food journals.

    Two of my four sons are very intolerant to gluten, casein,and soy.
    Anyways my point is to know your own body.

    I don't go to gatherings where there is a bunch of food because its stressful to be around a huge amount of highly processed foods that I don't regularly eat and its not worth the day or so of suffering after eating like that.

    I eat to live now instead of live to eat and I don't watch calories very closely when i am training for anything as I want to have enough energy to recover and keep working without being tired.

  13. Just curious why you decided to post this today? Any particular reason? When I found out I was pregnant with a girl it freaked me out and now that's she two and 1/2, I'm still nervous. Growing up in Cali and attending a university where 1/2 of the girls had an eating disorder, my family will live overseas as long as we can! Here, in South America, the bigger the beter!

  14. Mrs. Mac: no reason, have had it on my mind for awhile now. as I said, with the Biggest Loser coming on soon, I thought it would be good discussion.

  15. I can't believe you took that picture of Paula Radcliffe down. It's not like you to shy away from controversy/lively discussion ;-) Also, I wanted to add that in my opinion and observation, very often greatness comes with some measure of dysfunction/unhealthiness (physical, emotional, or other). Example: do you think Paula maintains enough body fat to still menstruate? If not, ummm, that is actually not healthy.

  16. XLMIC: as I told someone else, I don't shy away from stuff, but I felt that the focus on her and the picture was taking away from the point of my post. I didn't want to give any more energy to it.

  17. I love that you got TWSS in a serious post to break the ice (or wind)!

    My body is my temple I want to fuel it right...sometimes it includes twizzlers, but mostly its healthy and reasonable!

  18. Totally agree with XLMIC about how the greatness likely comes with a bit of dysfunction.

    I read somewhere that Deena Kastor gained only 13 pounds with her baby. And then was down to pre-pregnancy weight at the time of hospital discharge. Hmmm.

    I'm no doctor, but how is that healthy?

  19. I think you did a great job of hitting some key points on a very touchy topic! Your comparison of marathon training/dieting to pregnant/dieting is need your fuel!

    I think I have a pretty healthy relationship with food and I can credit my mother for that - she might be overweight and fighting her own food battles but she did an awesome job of teaching me not to hate food! I'll never restrict myself from ice cream or cookies, ever! Portion control...sure, full on restriction...heck no!

  20. Losing weight while training for a marathon is entirely possible and can be done in a healthy way. I'm training for my second marathon and have lost 15 lbs in the last 6 months during pre-training/training... the trick is you can't go fast (no 2lb weight loss weeks) and you need to fuel properly pre-long run. The other trick is you have to have the weight to lose.... I was 20 lbs overweight so losing 15 was not detrimental to my training... in fact it helped! Less weight = less stress on the body = faster training times and recovery. With 5 lbs to go my training is in the 18 - 22 mile long run weeks so losing weight now is not priority numero uno.... staying healthy and injury free is.

  21. Great post. As someone who has lost 125 pounds in less than a year, I have a bit of experience with this.

    I didn't start out running, at first I was swimming and making healthy food choices. I started running in January (after about 3 months of "dieting") to speed up weight loss.

    I think I started running for the wrong reason, but somewhere along the lines I fell in love with the feeling of accomplishing things I never thought possible. I am by no means a world class runner, but I really enjoy running now a days.

    And I agree, it really difficult to "diet" and train properly - I actually have put the weight loss part on hold and am eating to ensure I feel strong for my runs. Its definitely a rough balance!

  22. *Waves Hand* I know all too well about calorie restricting and Running. I think if you are not educated about anything in life you will only fail yourself. That said, most people with a half a mind will understand that if you want to run and lose weight (which my husband and I are running example among thousands) that you must be smart about. Nutrient dense foods and learning enough about carb load/glycogen needs and the science behind running then a person can be smart in doing both. I advocate for this slippery slope and hope to encourage people to take up running when they are obese/overweight :-) Though provoking post and I like how you shared information to educate others.

  23. Big props to you for undertaking the topic! I agree with you on the slippery slope of marathon weight loss plans. I think jumping in the deep end like that can lead to injuries and burn out.
    Now I don't 100% agree with the lists posted just 'cause I think a lot of people DO have legit reasons to skip breakfast or lunch before workouts (I am SURE you understand what I mean, lol!) and some people do barf when they see Gatorade. I'm a Gatorade barfer myself but I still drink it during races because I know I really need some sodium. But yez, it turns my stomach big time.

  24. Such a good post and all very true. I started running to burn calories and lose weight. It didn't actually help because I still ate like crap. It wasn't until I met Angela that I fell in love with running itself. I actually worry about quite a few of the people in the blogging community because it seems like they meet all of the bullet points above. I have clearly had one injury a year but I run far less than a ton of marathoners out there (by a lot)... I rarely even reach 40 miles per week.

    I don't's a tough subject but everything you said is very true. When I was in that "situation" I hated it and I was completely miserable. I wanted out. I sought help and years later I was finally better. I never want to be there ever again and I don't want to see anyone else in that position either. It's sad and it's an awful way to live.

  25. People always say to me, you need to gain some weight. If they saw what I eat in a day, they would be surprised. I love eating! Haha!

  26. Great post! I started running to lose weight. I have the problem of the farther I run, the more I eat, because it's a great excuse. I lost a lot of weight training for my half. It's part exercise and part, my body started craving only healthy things and let me know when I was hungry or not. I will continue running as my main form of weight loss, but I am aware of symptoms of problems. I have seen people with serious eating disorders and exercise problems, and I have seen them recover. I don't personally think I could get there (I love my boobs too much to watch them shrink), I know where to go if I ever start to exhibit the symptoms.

  27. you really nail this topic. All view points and in a good way! I think all women have had or have disordered thoughts when it comes to eating and exercise. Finding that healthy balance sometimes takes years, mainly because we have to learn to love ourselves, and like you said nourish and enjoy food! Great post Beth!

  28. Hey there, great topic! And one that is incredibly difficult to tackle. First of all let me share that earlier tonight when I first read your post, I was sitting down on my couch eating pizza and in the mids of reading the "clues" of disordered eating I got this overwhelming feeling of gratitude because once again it became clear to me that I am no longer there. And as opposed to countless times before when I have lied manipulated and cheated I am now being honest to everyone else but most importantly my self.

    As far as the discussions on elite athletes and disordered eating I think we should not be giving “the great” any “discounts” in this matter … if its ok for the fastest women in the world to be anorexic surly it must be ok for the highest paid fashion model in the world to be anorexic as well… and where does that stop? The most important thing being that with greatness and recognition comes responsibility as a role model. (If you have to be unhealthy to be the best, in my humble opinion you should be doing something different or doing it a different way).

    On a lighter and more personal note, I finished my pizza. ☺ That being said I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I stuff my face every day or that if I really over eat I don’t sometimes feel shitty about it, but I think that’s fairly normal? However, I eat during meal times, I mostly eat healthy and I have people make comments about my body all the time which is something that I can find a bit irritating. (Eat more, well you eat less… just kidding☺) But all joking aside, fantastic subject an one that always needs to be revisited. Always a pleasure to read your blog

  29. I definitely fan fit into a few of those bullets, I would think everyone would have at least one bullet to their name. I couldn't get into TBL last season until the very end, but I'd like to this season. I also can't wait to see 2.5 Men. :)

  30. There's an interesting comment section on It's an old post (June 3, 2010), but it is relevant to your post, Beth. This is a sad but important topic. Thanks for addressing it.

  31. Great post! To be honest, I struggled with body image throughout high school and college, and still do to some degree. But, now, I think my relationship with food is pretty healthy. I still have days when I don't like what I see in the mirror, and I don't think that will ever go away. But at least I'm not abusing food like I did way back when!

  32. Great post Beth! I too have a tendency to gain a little weight when I am training hard for a race because I get so hungry and tend to eat more. So for me, I definitely can't lose weight when training so it because detrimental to my healthy if I try. I also want to be a positive role model for my kids as far as healthy eating and exercise. Now especially that I have a little girl. I grew up not having a healthy relationship with food, and even though I still struggle at times, I have a much better grasp on it and continue to educate myself.

  33. It seems a lot of us have gone through that crazy diet faze either in high school or college. During my years, the freshman 15 was almost unavoidable. We gave up food for beer until about 12 or 2 am. when pizza, potato chips, etc. was the choice menu.
    In re- to diet/fitness imbalance,
    I think there needs to be some kind of a healthy obsession when we decide our diet and fitness program needs to be tweaked. It's the nature of the competitive beast. We are type A's, we strive for perfection and do what it takes to get us there. Obviously, when we are not reaching our goals, we know enough to change something, whether it's diet or exercise level.
    I don't think anyone can have the desire to be a competitive runner/triathlete if they have an unhealthy awareness of weight, body image or training programs.
    In summary, the people you are speaking out to are not the ones who want the same things we want which would be to perform our sport in the best way our body will allow.

  34. This is a good post, it's made me think deeply about how, why and what I eat and how and why I exercise. Yes I need to loose weight and yes I exercise to assist me but I (hopefully) always eat enough to sustain myself and try to make sure I do exercise that I enjoy. Recently I have fallen out of love with running so instead of forcing it I have swapped to cycling and a bit of Zumba for my cardio & I am loving every minute of it.
    Hopefully I can maintain the balance.

    Thank you for a great post.

  35. I think this post was soooo good. I like it when you have serious posts sometimes. That post was me identical while in college. In hs I ran xc and track and never cared about calories. Yes, I wanted to be a little thinner, but never tried. I was never even a tab bit overweight, but I never had that super skinny body I craved. I loved to eat and I was happy. Then I went to college. I went from being the most popular girl to not knowing anyone. I longd for an identity. I ran xc and it became me. I was the runnergirl. :) well, I wanted to be the best, and I began to think that skinnier=faster. I was doing every single one of the things you had stated. I was sick!!!! But the sad thing was my coach NEVER said anything. I was still winning and eating so I guess he didn't have the guts or didn't care. I looked worse than the girl in the pic you posted. Now days, I longer struggle with anorexia, but I have to say that ED never leaves you. I have battled bulemia as well. I'm no longer super skinny, but I still wish I was. I'm back to loving food and not caring as much about being the fastest and skinniest. I am soooo blessed to be running. I am fast according to some, skinny according to some, but to me all that matter is that I am happy and I am running, and giving God the glory for it all!! :)

  36. This is so good for me to know where I stand and to understand friends who might be dealing with these issues, and having the courage and wisdom to lovingly talk to them about it!

  37. A great post!! I enjoyed reading it and all of the comments.

  38. Late on replying, but I do get tired of hearing that skinny people either have an eating disorder or that they are healthy. I'm far from skinny, but grew up with a skinny brother who could eat everything and not gain an ounce (he's still like that today, though he has now cultivated a beer belly). I also have many friends like that too. Some people are just skinny -- genetics, metabolism, whatever, the same others will never be skinny without getting there the unhealthy way (there's no such thing as "big boned" but we all have different body frames).

    People also need to remember that skinny doesn't equal healthy. I know a ton of skinny people who eat crap and never exercise, but meanwhile they look a lot more athletic than me, even if they're not. I don't envy them either, I'll take my curves and my muscular legs because I know how far they can take me!

  39. Of curse running is one of the best way to loss our weight. but in my city, it is really to busy city and I don't any free place to run in every morning.. thats why I do diet.

  40. I hate those lists of possible signs - I realise they are just signals but it's so easy to have a few of those and still be fine. Some people are vegetarian for ethical reasons, some people are able to diagnose food allergies themselves, some people can't tolerate sports drinks. I do have gastrointestinal problems, does that mean I have disordered eating, or just gastrointestinal problems? Ugh.

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