Before I was injured my relationship with running was a rollercoaster. Highs, lows, twist and turns but ultimately enjoying the ride. Then it slowly became messy, flying off the tracks with no idea what the fall would bring.
My story starts with a target. A tangible goal set out after finishing a strong XC season, I wanted to medal at the BUCS 10k with the main incentive being that could lead to earning a scholarship at uni something that had previously been out of reach. I was more motivated than ever and was steadily improving. Training was going well adding in some longer runs and longer sessions, progress was monitored and controlled by my coach.
Ending a solid 2013/14 XC season at Home Countries
But there are aspects of performance that come down to your own control and I starting assessing everything I did outside of training. This led to me looking at my nutrition the one thing I had total control over and an aspect I had never previously worried about, this is where I could make a difference. I had always had a healthy, balanced diet but never put a huge amount of thought into what I was eating. Something I now realise I totally took for granted.
At this point I think some sort of disclaimer is needed. I am not any sort of medical professional, I’m writing about my own experience and the effects it had on me. I am not directing this post at any one individual, I am not writing this post for attention in fact I wish I didn’t have to write it all but its a topic that needs to be openly discussed and I hope this can help in that process. I would also like to point out this is a surprisingly difficult topic for me to write about, I’m talking about events, thoughts, feelings that happened over the last 2 years. Thoughts that I’ve learnt are toxic and I don’t enjoy reliving. I am so aware this is a sensitive topic and if you’ve simple come to cast a judgement then I ask you stop right here.
So like I said my story begins when I set a goal and for the first time it was something bigger and difficult but not impossible. To try and put a timescale to it BUCS was at the start of May and the goal was set at some point in March. This meant I left uni and my main training group for Easter and went to visit family in Holland. This involved the usual outings to restaurants and cafes but this time they were different. I starting drinking tea rather hot chocolate topped with cream and I turned down any cakes on offer. I limited myself to one small piece of Easter chocolate a day, I ate popcorn instead of crisps , I ordered salad instead of chips – simple little changes. It was the first time I was making a conscious effort to improve my diet with the only real aim being to cut out unhealthy ‘extras’ and to choose healthier options. Nothing extreme, but if I wanted to be a better athlete surely it was something I had to do?
Training in Holland Easter 2014
BUCS 10k – I won a bronze medal, I did it I achieved my goal. At the time a few people told me I looked slimmer, fitter, faster and I felt it, it made me feel great. So it was on to the next goal with a new mind-set, if I weighed less I’d run faster. After finishing with uni for the year I was back at home for summer and had a full time job. Days became run, work, run, sleep, repeat. Over the course of the summer I was mainly training on my own at a relentless pace with no one to watch me or slow me down. I was now looking towards the cross season with a realistic opportunity to make the Euro XC team being the next big target.
BUCS 10K Podium
When I returned to uni for what should have been my final year I could sense people stirring. Clearly I had lost weight, but I’d been away for months, of course I looked different. I found ways to justify everything, I wasn’t like those other girls who got skinny and broke. I was being sensible, I was eating all my meals, snacking straight after every session, how could this be dangerous? The main problem was that when I was eating I wasn’t eating enough, I wasn’t having any proper snacks and I was denying myself any ‘bad’ foods. Even looking back now I’m amazed how quickly this meant I lost weight, too quickly. It took its toll, I had awful mood swings, barely able to process my own thoughts, I was antisocial and would avoid meals out, I cried regularly and I was flat out exhausted. I wasn’t myself but I couldn’t see it.
On holiday in Slovenia
Holiday photos that are bittersweet to look back on.
Imagine having a whole 6 months worth of photos you hate to look at. Photos that show how obvious it was. How could I have missed it? But you don’t see it, you just don’t. If someone remarks on your weight you feel proud. Proud you’ve managed to reduce the number on the scales, proud you manage to eat the bare minimum. I remember so clearly having one conversation where I was told straight to my face I’d lost a lot of weight and I’d lost it quickly, I was treading a fine line. I brushed it off I’m not like other girls who don’t eat anything. I eat carbs, I eat regularly, I’ve got a controlled diet. But that was just the problem. Control.
Scheduling every meal, every snack, every day not even eating 10 minutes before my planned timing. I was meticulously planning everything I ate to ensure it was just enough to keep me going and nothing unnecessary was allowed to creep in. It wasn’t about looking skinny, I didn’t care about how I looked I cared about how fast I was. So I lost weight and I ran faster. But at what cost? I was miserable and I hated the fact that I was starting to hate running.
This is just a glimpse into how I thinking at the time, and I’m realising now how difficult it is to try and put into words. Even at the time I remember not being able to articulate what was going on in my head and at this point I’ve moved on enough that I simply don’t have the ability to put myself back into the same mindset. My thoughts where all over the place, the only thing I knew was how to do was run. I cried regularly because I couldn’t make sense of anything but if that’s what it took to make the team that would have to be the sacrifice. You find ways to justify yourself and you think that because you are eating throughout the day you’re fine. I wasn’t anorexia or bulimic so there was nothing wrong with me.
I only recently came across something that could describe the mindset I had developed – orthorexia. An obsession with ‘eating right’, overthinking eating, avoiding certain ‘bad’ foods. That’s my interpretation, you can google it for yourself. Besides I don’t think one word can really it sum up. It’s a problem within athletics. It’s a problem because it’s hard to pin down. On the surface you’re still eating fairly normally but on the inside your brain is doing somersaults to make sure its the right food, the right amount, the right timing. Slowly chipping away any personality or character you have.
I guess I should finish off my story – to sum up the XC season, I ran brilliantly. I made a senior England team and people where taking notice of me. I felt fast, I could make the team. At the trials I felt awful, I knew I was in an automatic qualifying spot throughout the race but all I wanted to do was stop. When I crossed the line I was a mess, crying in relief rather than happiness. I’ll always be proud that I made the team, but it’s still a bittersweet time to look back at.
Euro XC Trials – Liverpool, 2013 and 2014
After hitting the Team GB goal I gradually started to eat more ‘normally’ loosening the grip my mind had over my diet. I didn’t have a goal for Euro XC I was simply happy to be there and I enjoyed every second of the experience (well except the hungover journey home!) Then it was Christmas which meant plenty of eating and I slowly put on a little weight. After having a shocker of a race in Edinburgh and finding out I had low iron I cut my XC season short and I finally started to relax. I’d hit my big goal and I was satisfied with the season. It was at this point I realised how much of a control freak I had been leading up to the trials. I realised this needed to change otherwise I was going to hurt myself. Now if I felt hungry in the evening I had a snack ‘this piece of toast will stop you getting injured eat it!’ So I became a much healthier weight, and thought I’d got away with it. But the damage had been done, I hadn’t had a period for over a year and my body couldn’t take it anymore.
I don’t need to tell you about what happens after that point, it’s all here in this blog. Equally I’m not saying my quick weight loss is the reason I got injured but I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t a huge factor. I’m sure your wondering if I regret it? Well yes of course I regret becoming that unhealthy, that unhappy but I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy running fast and having so many amazing experiences along the way. The sacrifice happened and I wish it hadn’t but I’m not going to take away those happy memories that came with it.
Once I got injured I flew to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, eating whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. It took a while to find a balance, but I’m finally there. Finally at point where I an write the post this blog was always meant to be for. Now for the aggressive part…
If ANY of this has resonated with you please have a think about what you are doing to yourself and the long term effects. I’ve learnt the hard way, I read blogs with the same message saw the similarities to what I was doing but told myself I was different. You aren’t. Obsessively controlling your food intake is not normal and it is not healthy. If you avoid meals out, if you eat the same things everyday at the same time everyday, if you don’t allow yourself anything ‘bad’ I urge you to take a critical view of what you might be doing to yourself long term. Speak to a nutritionist, a coach, a friend, anyone. I know this might seem extreme attempting to rattle people through a blog post but it’s what it takes!
Happier and healthier after my first 30min run back
There are plenty of people who have written about problems with athletes and weight and I don’t deny this is just another to add to the ever increasing pile but these blogs are going to keep popping up because it is still a problem. A problem that isn’t going to be solved by someone simply reading words on a screen. Everyone has a responsibility. If you know anyone you think might be having this kind of problem, tell them! Don’t discuss it behind their back watching them slowly unravel. The chances are they don’t realise quite how much they are hurting themselves and they are likely to be pretty unhappy under the surface. I’m not saying you have to directly confront them it could simply be sending a link this post and having a discussion.
So that’s me, a story that I’m not going to bury but one that I’ve learnt from and can move on from. I hope by sharing this an awareness can be made or a discussion can be started and just maybe somebody can be helped.