“There is no such thing as a runner’s body. You have a body, so run with it"


Emily Warner discusses her rediscovery of running as a method for recovery

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Image by Kyle Cassidy

By Emily Warner

CONTENT WARNING: This article mentions eating disorders.

The world of running is a dangerous one for some-one in recovery from an eating disorder. Peppered with discourse about the ‘runner’s body’, ‘minutes per mile’ and calorie counting, running seems to demand perfection from someone whose recovery process is about letting go. Kristen Schindler writes in Trailrunner, “whether aiming to break records, surpass per-sonal barriers, or simply revel in the joy of nature running caters to a wide range of ath-letes, making the concept of ‘enoughness’ both subjective and elusive”. Similarly, eating disorders are often a struggle to accept ‘enoughness’.

For many people, they’re not about eating but more about control, perfectionism and the negative thoughts that emerge when those expectations aren’t met. Increasingly widespread, UK charity Beat estimates that 1.25 million people in the UK now suffer from an eating disorder.

With this in mind, it isn’t difficult to understand the correlation between running and disordered eating. There is a scientific reason for the link too. According to the Physiotherapy Eating Disorder Professional Network, activity urges are controlled by a brain chemical called Leptin. In the majority of individuals with a restricted diet, the levels of Leptin significantly reduce, resulting in an increased urge to be active, often referred to as ‘compulsive exercise’.

A quick Google search yields countless testimonials and scientific studies which prove this. Although the statistics vary, they all agree on one thing: running is a trigger. At the beginning of my own recovery, this was a belief that I clung to, developing an almost pathological fear of the sport. For me, running conjured up memories of my lowest moments when I was struggling up hills, fuelled by nothing but a desire to lose weight. Running meant relapse and relapse meant losing the last two years of progress.

Until one day, I tentatively laced up my trainers, zipped myself into a fleece and tried running a 5k.

For years, having been an “I don’t run” girl, it was liberating to find that I enjoyed the pulse of my footfall on the pavement, the sound of my breath and the clouds cartwheeling across the sky. I learnt to revel in the joy of movement. Movement not for the sake of weight loss or personal bests but just for the sake of movement. I won’t pretend it was easy – those old thoughts always linger in the corners of my mind, as they do for many who have fought and won against a mental illness (even in recovery, “enoughness” is subjective).

However, reorienting the way I thought about running transformed the way I thought about my own body. Suddenly, I was celebrating what I could already do in-stead of pushing myself to be thinner, be faster, go further. I noticed myself becoming stronger and a new mantra replaced the old: eat to run, don’t run to eat.

A year later, I had completed my first half marathon.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Science proves that running benefits mental, as well as physical, fitness by boosting endorphins, reducing stress and improving body image. Jessyca Arthur-Cameselle, associated professor of sport and exercise psychology at Washington University, studies athletes who have expe-rienced an eating disorder. Although she has found that for many athletes, sport is a trigger, up to half the athletes she’s interviewed also say it helped them recover. Reading this, I thought, “maybe, just maybe, running isn’t the problem, but society is.”

The experience of professional marathoner, Phily Bowden, seems to support this conclusion. She told the Telegraph that her struggle with anorexia was perpetuated by a ‘problematic culture’ which prioritised the number on the scale over athletes’ wellbeing. She added: “To say a great mathematician would be a great track and field coach is nonsense. You’re dealing with human beings who have lives and feelings.” Similarly, for British Athletics running coach and former elite runner, Jo Wilkinson, changing the toxic discourse around running is vital for the safety of future athletes. Now, both have recovered their relationship with running and Jo said she’s “at a point where I love and appreciate everything my body has done for me”.

Let’s return to Schindler’s ideas of “enoughness” – what does that actually mean? When have you run enough, or recovered enough, or shed enough pounds? I’m not sure there is an answer. Fitness and recovery are states which people perpetually move in and out of. When you go for a run, it is your current body which runs you through the finish line, so leave any concept of what’s ‘enough’ at the door.

There is no such thing as a runner’s body. You have a body, so run with it.

Editor’s Note: This article does not offer medical advice. If you feel you need additional support, you can contact the Beat helpline: 0808 801