For recovery, I took a break from running

L9P Community Post: Kathleen Hernder, RD

My story with running is a bit of a complicated one. If you were to ask me about running ten years ago when I started, I would have told you I ran because it made me feel good. That’s true now. But, I started running in University because I wanted to control how my body looked as part of my eating disorder.

For me, recovery has been a long process.

A key part was cutting way back on exercise, including running.

I was always self-conscious of my body growing up, which got worse when I went through puberty. When I was young, people commented on how slender I was. As I started developing hips and curves, those comments stopped. I thought I had done something wrong to have gained that weight, even though what I was going through was a normal, healthy part of development. I started buying fitness magazines, reading the nutrition information, and following the workouts. I stopped eating what my family ate because I decided it wasn’t ‘healthy’ enough, even though in retrospect, as a dietitian, I think our family meals were very balanced.

During my first year of University, I developed Bulimia Nervosa.

I was overwhelmed and stressed with my classes, along with trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Food became a way to numb those feelings so I didn’t have to deal with them. I started purging in an effort to undo the guilt, and the calories I’d eaten. Ashamed of myself, I would restrict even more, trying to eat what I thought at the time was a perfect diet, which only made the binges worse.

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Eventually, I went to my mom and told her what was happening.

I didn’t want to continue my cycle of binging and purging. She took me to see a psychologist and I stopped purging. For years, I thought I had recovered from my eating disorder.

In truth, I started to purge with something else: compulsive exercise.

As a kid, I was never into sports. I have horrible coordination so when it came to doing exercise, I started in the gym. I remember watching the people running on the treadmill in awe—it seemed like they could go on forever, and I coveted their bodies. So I started running. It took me a long time to build up how far I could run but eventually, I did it. I would run every day, regardless of how I felt. There were days when running outside was like meditation and I felt present and alive. Most of the time, I was exhausted and ran to numb my feelings and make up for my binges, which continued despite stopping my purging.

The binges were my body trying to get me to eat enough.

I thought something was wrong with me when I found myself binging out of control.

Now I know I wasn’t fueling my body properly for the amount of activity I was doing. The binges were my body trying to get me to eat enough. I didn’t see it that way; for years I continued to restrict my eating, and began exercising more and more. If I missed a workout, I felt guilty and anxious. Exercise, eating, and work became almost my whole life. I wouldn’t go to many parties because they might get in the way of my hours of workouts.

Admitting I had a problem with exercise took some time.

When people found out about my habits, no one really voiced concern. The reaction I got was more along the lines of “Wow, you’re so disciplined, I wish I could do that!” or comments on how strong I was. This reinforced my continuing eating disorder. What no one realized was that I was miserable. If I was sick, I would force myself to work out anyways. I got overtraining injuries, because I wasn’t giving myself enough rest, which became worse when I powered through them. I was always exhausted and got sick all the time and I had no idea why—after all, exercise was supposed to give me energy, right?

I saw another therapist.

We started talking about my compulsive exercise. We talked about the fact that while exercising was good for mood, sleep, and stress, I had started using exercise as compensation for my binges and as yet another way to start numbing my feelings.

Learning intuitive eating and taking a break from exercising helped me recovery from my eating disorder.

I didn’t cut down on my exercise right away. I started including yoga and learned to connect with my body and how it felt. I moved to a new city and didn’t get a gym membership. I originally joined a running club, then realized that I really needed to give myself a break from exercise in order to fully recover from my eating disorder.

I really needed to give myself a break from exercise in order to fully recover from my eating disorder.

Taking a break

Stopping exercising, including running, was one of the best things I ever did for myself.

I was finally able to start listening to my hunger and feeding properly, since the amount of food I needed to eat to fuel my body no longer scared me. I learned to eat intuitively without rules and restriction, and I finally started having energy again.

I gradually started running again, mostly with a group or with friends.

Relay running, with friends!

I stopped paying attention to my GPS telling me how far and fast I ran. I started thinking about eating as a way to fuel my body for runs instead of running and exercise being punishment for food I had eaten. When I run now, I’m present in my body and listen to it when it tells me I need a slow day or a short-run day. I listen when my body needs self-care in the form of a hot bath and a book, or a walk instead of a run. Running and exercising energizes me now instead of making me feel exhausted. To quote the wonderful sports dietitian, Nancy Clark, running and exercise has “become something I do for my body, instead of to it.”

I don’t look as ‘fit’ as I did during my compulsive exercising days but I’ve learned to be okay with that because I’ve realized that I wasn’t healthy.

I wasn’t healthy because I wasn’t getting the proper rest or fuel for my activity, because all I cared about was eating and exercising. The truth is that we look at health wellness mostly through the lens of physical health, but emotional and mental health are just as important. I know that now.

If my story around exercise resonates with you, I really encourage you to get help.

If you feel anxiety about the idea of a day off, force yourself to exercise even when you’re exhausted, sick, or injured, and feel guilty if you miss a workout, these are some signs that you might have an unhealthy relationship with exercise and seeking help from a therapist and dietitian specializing in eating disorders is something I can’t recommend enough.

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