Running towards recovery

How running helped me navigate my struggle with disordered eating

Through running, Claudia re-learned how to nourish her body.
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This article discusses eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers. The Canadian Mental Health Association Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-875-6213.

I started running as a requirement for my 10th grade Phys-Ed class. Initially, I dreaded every time my gym teacher forced us outside to jog around the neighbourhood, but I was hitting the pavement independently by the end of semester. 

While the physical and psychological benefits of running are widespread, one underlying truth pushed me to lace up my shoes: if I wanted to run, I needed to eat. 

By the time I started running, I was a few years into a struggle with disordered eating. 

On the outside, my life seemed normal. I excelled in school, swam for a competitive team, and maintained a close group of friends. In reality, I’d been “dieting” since the summer before eighth grade, a process that involved skipping meals and using my spare time to workout. 

The physical changes were subtle at first, but quickly became distinct. I lost my period, fainted in class, and dropped 30 lbs. off a frame that couldn’t afford to lose that much weight. For years, I skirted questions about why I wasn’t eating lunch and developed blanket answers to explain why clothes didn’t fit right, always spinning the story to make my situation seem reasonable. When my coach started asking why my swimsuit looked baggy on my shrinking frame, I quit the team. 

My eating habits had been inconsistent for a few years when I committed to running the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon in the fall of 12th grade. Suddenly, I was held accountable to a goal that tested my body’s physical capabilities, instead of my physical appearance.

In the process of training, I re-learned how to nourish my body because my desire to become a better runner pushed me to allow myself to eat.

Naturally, recovery isn’t straightforward. There were days I skipped meals and didn’t have the energy to make it past the first kilometre in my training route. There were stretches when I only made it to the end of my street before I sat on the curb and cried. Over the course of six months, the relationship between food and the functionality of my body slowly, painfully, became clear, until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. When I crossed the finish line of my first half-marathon, I did so with the knowledge that recovery was possible. 

In the final kilometre of the race, every step was an acknowledgement of the progress I’d made and a commitment to the journey that remained ahead. 

I don’t typically talk about my experience with disordered eating because it’s not a part of my identity I want emphasized in the way I’m perceived by other people. However, I’m learning there’s value in sharing my experience.

Unhealthy eating habits are common and largely unidentified, as people have become desensitized towards negative relationships with food through the normalization of diet culture. My own struggle was prolonged because I couldn’t see that restricting my food consumption was something out of the ordinary, and my peers often conflated my eating habits with the rules of a healthy-active lifestyle. 

In analyzing my own relationship with food, I began to notice the frequency of other people grappling with body insecurities, societal pressures, and disordered eating habits. From business students to varsity athletes, regardless of gender or age, these issues were present everywhere I looked. As someone who’d been in that position before, I saw my chance to start a discussion about the symptoms of disordered eating. My story could help someone else in their own journey to recovery. 

On Jan. 16, Buzzfeed published an article about exercise as a means of transforming lives, featuring stories from people who improved their relationship with food through running. One individual said: “I found out pretty quick that I actually had to feed myself because if I didn’t there was no way I’d be able to manage running 13 miles […] [Running] helped me figure out how I am supposed to take care of myself, even with the basic act of feeding myself.”

For me, it took self-reflection, honest discussions with my family, and the commitment to running a half-marathon to change my attitude towards food. Through all of my athletic struggles—shin splints, sore muscles, chafing—I knew I couldn’t quit training because it was going to save me. 

I knew I couldn’t quit training because it was going to save me. 

Recovery is a difficult task that can never truly be crossed off the mental health to-do list, but in my stubborn refusal to give up the one thing I was passionate about, I stuck with my goal. My body made it clear: if I didn’t eat, I couldn’t run—and I loved running because it gave me glimpse of all I could accomplish if I simply believed in myself.

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