Updated: Jul 28
By: Coach Jenna Gigliotti
After graduating from Duquesne University with a Masters degree in Physician Assistant Studies in 2016, Coach Jenna moved to Amherst, MA to start her career in family medicine. She loves training on the many trails and dirt roads in Western Massachusetts and continues to compete post-collegiately as a member of the Western Mass Distance Project team.
Eating disorders, disordered eating, and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S, formerly known as the female athlete triad) are all too common in endurance sports, yet not talked about enough. This week, during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we want to share some insights about the prevalence and dangers of eating disorders and how to decrease stigma, increase awareness and education, and foster a positive culture around having a healthy relationship with food and body image in endurance sports.
Among female high school athletes in aesthetic sports, 42% reported disordered eating and they were 8x more likely to incur injury than athletes who did not report disordered eating (1). Likely there are similar or higher rates (mental health issues are often underreported in surveys) in collegiate, post-collegiate, and recreational female athletes of all ages. While eating disorders are commonly associated with females, male athletes are also at risk- one study reported that 33% of male athletes in aesthetic and weight-class sports are affected by eating disorders (2). RED-S (formerly known as female athlete triad, but now known to affect men too) is a syndrome of impaired physiological function including, but not limited to, metabolic rate, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis, and cardiovascular health caused by relative energy deficiency (insufficient caloric intake and/or excessive energy expenditure), and can affect female and male athletes of all ages, especially those in endurance sports (3). Relative energy deficiency can lead to increased risk of injury (particularly stress fractures), decreased training response, decreased endurance performance, decreased muscle strength, decreased glycogen stores, decreased coordination, decreased concentration, impaired judgment, irritability, and depression (3).
Why are these so common in endurance athletes? More research is needed to study this, but likely some of the same qualities that draw people to and make people great at endurance sports can be double-edged swords that can also predispose people to disordered eating. Bringing awareness to these predispositions can allow one to look at their own personalities and behaviors and evaluate if they are helping them or hindering them and seek support and help if needed. We can all work on challenging these stereotypes to contribute to a positive and healthy endurance sports culture.
Competitive drive: the do whatever it takes mentality to train hard, achieve success, and be better than the competition can lead to disordered eating behaviors and an obsession with training that in reality does not allow the body to be fueled properly or rest adequately.
Instead try to foster a competitive drive with an evidence-based approach rather than a do-whatever-it-takes approach to proper fueling, adequate rest, and effective training to achieve long-term success and health.
Striving for perfectionism: being an overachiever with perfect form and perfect training, can be a slippery slope to striving for the perfect diet and perfect body, which does not exist.
Dismantle perfectionism and emphasize that we are all imperfectly perfect in our own unique ways.
Ability to fight through pain: the often applauded quality of being able to push through and not listen to the body in workouts or races can quickly cross the line into not acknowledging warning signs of injury or not listening to hunger signals.
Learn to listen to and honor the body and allow it to work with you instead of against you.
Identity attached to only being an athlete: it can be fun and powerful to identify as an athlete, but tying too much identical to that can cause one to rely only on success, PRs, and external sources of validation rather than having a true inner and inherent sense of self-worth.
You are inherently worthy, you are enough just as you are, and you do not need any external validation to prove so.
Emphasis on data: numbers and tracking can be a helpful part of the training, but can also quickly spiral into obsessing over tracking miles, steps, calories, food intake, etc for the sake of achieving a number rather than looking at the whole picture.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story. There are so many variables that affect training, nutrition, health, etc and the beautifully complex body cannot be defined by mere numbers alone.
Using running (or endurance activity of choice) as a release: running and endurance activities can provide stress reduction, peace, and a sense of freedom from the endorphins and “runner’s high” of moving the body and being outside. During challenging times, the same “runner’s high” can quickly become an unhealthy coping mechanism that numbs other feelings, struggles, or issues instead of addressing them directly.
Normalize feeling the feelings, speaking up about struggles, having numerous tools in the self-care toolbox, and asking for help when needed.