According to the National Eating Disorders Association in the United States, it is estimated that 20 million women and 10 million men in the alone will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. While in the United Kingdom, more than 1.6 million are affected by eating disorders with 25% of them male.
Many runners are impacted by eating disorders and the sport can both help and hinder recovery depending on the severity of illness and the stage in ones running career that it occurs. This is not a straightforward illness with a clear start and finish line. There are many crossroads, roundabouts and speedbumps along the way. No two people are the same in terms of their symptoms, triggers, coping mechanisms or recovery but we wanted to share one runner’s story to highlight how, with the right help and support, sufferers can get better and move forward with their lives.
“My life is so different now, I’m a much happier and confident person. I never thought I would get to the position I am in now. That is why I’m so passionate about sharing my story, I hope that it may shine a little light and help someone else who is struggling. Recovery is possible.”
Laura Beth James-Hutchinson from near Derby, in the UK, is a proud mum and a passionate runner who battled bulimia and exercise addiction for many years. She is an amazing role model for anyone facing similar struggles. This is her story.
“From my late teens I had disordered thoughts around my eating and an unhealthy view towards my body. It got worse at 20 when I tried to eat as little as possible for over a year until one day I thought, ‘I can’t carry on doing this, I need food,’ and this is when a very destructive relationship began with bulimia, which continued for many years. In all honesty it continued to rear its head until as recently as a year ago.
“Bulimia was my evil best friend for many years and became a ‘normal’ part of my life. It was my go-to when things got tough and it felt like the only thing I could control. I now realize that it was the illness that was controlling me.”
Laura’s running journey started ‘later in life’ at the age of 30 when her brother encouraged her to join her local running club. She was still suffering with bulimia but it was a key point at which running became a part of her journey towards recovery - and a way of creating some distance from that evil best friend. But it took time to get to this place.
“Eleven months after joining the run club I ran my first marathon in Paris and I was hooked. I had gone from doing little fitness all my life to throwing myself into running and training. What I wasn’t aware of at the time though was that I was still in a dark and consuming place with my eating disorder. I got into running as an aid to my eating disorder, a way to burn off the food I’d consume."
Being happy on the inside and out was - and continues to be - an important part of Laura’s recovery process but turning the corner was not an easy maneuver. With the help of her family, she found the strength to seek help but went to several doctors before she found one she felt she could relate to.
“The first doctor dismissed my illness, the second told me my BMI was too high for me to receive treatment, I then tried counseling and meditation but it was the third doctor I tried when it clicked for me. She knew more about eating disorders and didn’t trivialize what I was going through. We decided together that I should try antidepressants for a year and once I got through some awful side effects, I really did start to feel much stronger and better within myself. That was the trigger to really trying hard with my recovery and getting out of this vicious cycle."
Laura has replaced the control of her eating and addictive behaviors with her positive passion for fitness and family life. She has learned to enjoy yoga and a big part of her running pleasure now comes from her goal of achieving her Six Star finisher's medal.
“I have since learned that the reason why I can now run a higher volume of miles is because I’m fueling and training sensibly. My body isn’t breaking down anymore, it’s not screaming out STOP. I can now drop in 100-mile weeks if I want to.
“I love running more than I ever have but equally I now love my food. My active lifestyle needs quite a bit of fuel and I no longer deny myself that. I am passionate now about self -care. Running and being kinder to myself helped me hugely in my recovery and helps me every day now.”
Her Majors experience began with the Virgin Money London Marathon in 2015, crossing the line 22 minutes faster than her first 26.2 miles in Paris the year before. She ticked-off Berlin that autumn, and walked away with a Boston Qualifying time along with her second star. Boston was a dream come true in 2017 and her most recent star came on another magical weekend for Laura in Chicago last year.
“I absolutely love the Abbott World Marathon Major weekends, I love the training, the excitement at the expo, talking to the other runners, meeting up with other runners in person who I have met through social media. It’s such a wonderful community.
“My dream is to run the Tokyo and TCS New York City Marathons, I often daydream about them. And until those can happen, I think the Global Run Club is a brilliant idea. It unites runners across the world and gives us a focus in these much-changed times.”
The future is bright and positive for Laura. She is kept busy with her two children (aged 11 and nine), but makes time for self-care, her running and supporting others who are going through similar issues.
“When I was ill I was never told not to run, the only thing my doctor was concerned about was the risk of over-training, running too much. I have got to say that running the last few years has helped me so much. It’s saved me many times and I know that many others feel that way too. I feel so much better when I’ve been for a run - I feel like I can tackle anything.
“During my recovery I found a local support center where I’d attend group sessions and we’d explore coping techniques and distraction tools. I always hoped I’d be strong enough one day to be on the other side of the conversation and I now volunteer with the group as my way of giving back and it feels great.
“My advice to anyone struggling with an eating disorder is to talk to someone you can trust. Be brave and open up. Or if you think that a friend or family member is struggling then reach out to them, check that they are OK. It might be the helping hand the desperately need.
“Recovery is a hard, long journey. I have tough days and I know I’ll have more ahead of me, but they are much less frequent. I am treatment-free, medication-free and I am proud to be well into my recovery.”
* Note: Always consult a physician and get a full health evaluation prior to marathon training. Even if athletes appear healthy, or to have a disorder under control, underlying medical conditions could exist.
** If you are concerned about your or a loved one's relationship with food or exercise, please speak with a medical professional.
According to nationaleatingdisorders.org
Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights. While no one knows for sure what causes eating disorders, a growing consensus suggests that it is a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors.
Anorexia Nervosa: Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss (or lack of appropriate weight gain in growing children); difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight for height, age, and stature; and, in many individuals, distorted body image. People with anorexia generally restrict the number of calories and the types of food they eat. Some people with the disorder often exercise compulsively, purge via vomiting and laxatives, and/or binge eat.
Bulimia nervosa: Bulimia nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating.
Binge Eating Disorder: Binge eating disorder (BED) is a severe, life-threatening, and treatable eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating. It is the most common eating disorder in the United States.
Compulsive Exercise: Warning signs of compulsive exercise include: exercise that significantly interferes with important activities, occurs at inappropriate times or in inappropriate settings, or when the individual continues to exercise despite injury or other medical complications; intense anxiety, depression, irritability, feelings of guilt, and/or distress if unable to exercise; maintains excessive, rigid exercise regimen – despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury; discomfort with rest or inactivity; exercise used to manage emotions; exercise as a means of purging (needing to “get rid of” or “burn off” calories); exercise as permission to eat; exercise that is secretive or hidden.