For many athletes, running is seen as a form of punishment. For track and cross country runners, it is a passion – but a passion that can quickly lead to physical harm, including eating disorders.
For junior cross country and track runner Holly Goergen, this was all too familiar.
According to an NCAA study, an estimated 25 percent of female collegiate athletes and 20 percent of male athletes suffer from some sort of eating disorder.
Goergen got into running after searching for something to fill a void. Coming from a family of runners, in which both parents ran, she decided to give it a shot.
“I really just started running because I was looking for something that would make me happy and my parents always talked about running in high school and in college and how it made them so happy and I was like, ‘well, maybe that will also be something I’ll enjoy,’” Goergen said. “So I took it up and I actually really did enjoy it and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Issues began to arise for Goergen in high school. Goergen said her drive to get better lead to continued thoughts about losing weight to get faster. She said she would start to eat less while continuing to run more and more.
Eating Disorder Hope (www.eatingdisorderhope.com) categorized this as orthorexia, or excessive exercise. Jacquelyn Ekern, President and founder of Eating Disorder Hope, said they are an organization that offers education, support and inspiration to eating disorder sufferers, their loved ones and eating disorders treatment providers.
It became apparent to Goergen that something was wrong after fainting twice at one of her high school practices. Afterwards, she started to seek help from doctors, which she said helped her get through that time period.
“I would restrict a lot of foods I was eating, what types of food I could eat because I was trying to lose weight and then I would run more to make up for whatever I had eaten that day,” Goergen said. “It turned into a vicious cycle where I was hardly eating and running a lot which isn’t sustainable for life.”
In high school, a bad day for Goergen would be to wake up and go for a run before school, skip lunch, go to practice after school and go home and have her first and only meal of the day be family dinner.
By the time Goergen came to Webster, she found ways to handle her eating habits. It wasn’t until her sophomore year where she started to struggle again. Goergen’s boyfriend and teammate, Austin Dudley, was the one to point out there was something wrong.
“I started to notice that, sometimes, she wouldn’t eat enough. With the mileage she was running, it was more than anybody at this school so I was like, ‘you need a little more food to energize through the runs,’” Dudley said.
Dudley is familiar with people struggling with eating disorders. He said he had a friend in high school who played soccer that would not eat because she believed she was overweight.
Dudley himself also struggled with these issues at one point. He said he thought he was not good enough to run so he had to lose weight to get faster.
The desire to have a low body weight in long distance running is very common in the sport. Part of this stems from coaches around collegiate programs.
An article written by Ron Thompson for NCAA.org said, “Coaches have considerable influence with their athletes, and it appears that their relationship with their student-athletes – and more specifically their motivational climate – can influence the risk of disordered eating. A relationship between coach and athlete characterized by high conflict and low support has been associated with increased eating pathology among athletes.”
Ekern said that the NCAA and their coaches have improved with their coaching styles in dealing with eating disorders, but the problem still is not solved.
“Coaches have come a long way in recognizing that they need to be sensitive about weight and body image with athletes,” Ekern said. “However, I have had clients in my practice, who were runners in high school, that reported excessive praise from their coaches when they lost weight, even when they were underweight, at a very low BMI and no longer menstruating.”
Goergen said that she has not experienced these issues with coaches here at Webster.
“I’ve never had any problems with a coach encouraging me to lose weight or a coach saying what I should be eating. I think I’ve been really lucky in that respect because there’s a lot of college programs where the coaches encourage their athletes to be thin,” Goergen said.
Dudley said the coaches at Webster do not believe there should be a diet plan. The only focus from the coaches is to make sure the runners are eating healthy. Dudley does not see a benefit to a diet program because it says that coaches have a problem with how you eat.
According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, male and female student-athletes who are inadequately fueling their bodies may experience hormonal disruptions that lead to compromised bone density and increased risk of bone injuries, including stress fractures.
Goergen struggled with injury around the same time her struggles began to come back during her time at Webster. She ended up being diagnosed with double patellar tendonitis.
With a steady diet and a balanced training regimen, Goergen, a biological science major with an emphasis in medicine, has seen her ability to focus in school has improved. She said she has not had to put as much effort into thinking anymore.
Struggling in the classroom is considered one of the signs that a student-athlete could be struggling with their diet. Ekern said the athlete’s’ mentality could actually hide the fact they are struggling.
“Being under nourished can lead to lack of clear thinking, poor concentration and failing grades,” Ekern said.
Today, Goergen has set goals to win conference for the 5K and 10K and break the school record for the 10K. Goergen is a three-time all-conference runner and if she is named to the all-conference her senior year, it will be the first time in Webster history a female runner is named to four consecutive all-conference teams.
For anyone that Goergen sees struggling like she did, she encourages them to be open and talk to someone about it so they can get help.
“I encourage people to get help, talk to a professional and just be very open about it because if one of your friends know that you have trouble with it and they start to notice that you’re picking up bad patterns, they can say something to you, hopefully, so you don’t start to fall back into bad habits.”
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this important article! Though I do want to clarify, that we do not categorize over-exercising as a form of orthorexia at Eating Disorder Hope. These are too separate issues. They may both occur simultaneously, but excessive exercise is not orthorexia. orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating that causes unhealthy psychological and/or physical consequences. ~ Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, Founder & President @ Eating Disorder Hope
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