Winter 2017. I’m (Catriona) at home making “no-carb” bread from a recipe I found on Instagram. I’ve just moved to Melbourne and my training has steadily improved since I began running seriously again the previous year. But this winter has been tougher than usual. My energy levels are low and I have trouble completing training sessions and managing anxiety. To combat this, I try to lose weight and cut gluten from my diet because it seems like a way to regain control of my body. After a few months of continued decline, I get a blood test and my iron levels are extremely low.
Since my early teens, I thought being thin would solve all my problems: not merely that it’d allow me to become a better athlete, but that it would make me more likeable and desirable. I developed a shame-driven relationship to food. Until recently, I didn’t know how to eat to nurture my body — only to punish it.
Then I began to take my health more seriously. Thinking back, I don’t know what the decisive factor was. Perhaps I was tired of being tired. Or perhaps I realised that to become a professional athlete, I needed to prioritise professional advice. Either way, I took action and booked an iron infusion, an appointment with a dietitian and a psychologist.
Two years later, my athletic career took off unexpectedly. Truly unexpectedly, as I’d focused on loving my body rather than performance outcomes. Even so, my improved relationship to food has not been unfailingly upward progress. In the weeks before the 2019 World Championships, I was diagnosed with a stress reaction in my left ankle and unable to run. In my miserable and stressed state, I reverted to the coping mechanisms of my younger self. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t run well and it took several months of working with my psychologist, and letting time pass for my body to heal, to get back to the healthy place I’m at now.
Now, I recognise that even if I never achieved any of the things I have in sport, the process of finding help and taking my health seriously has fundamentally changed how I feel about my body and myself. It has gotten me to places I never thought possible.
Athletes have weird relationships with food.
They’re not always bad relationships, of course — but when they are, such behaviours can be enabled and obscured by the unique rigors of competition, training and the pursuit of personal achievement. And when there is extra stress, such as injury like above, or COVID-19 as we’re experiencing now, controlling food and weight is a coping mechanism that we athletes may engage with. But this behaviour can be a form of self-harm that negatively impacts both our physical and mental performance. Speaking openly about this is the most impactful way we can create change for ourselves and others around us.
Whether you have any degree of disordered eating, mental illness, or not, we all have an inner critic that can both drive and destroy us. Athletes can use it to our favour; our inner critic can spur us to attack and persevere through hard training. But currently, many of us have more time alone with our inner critic, don’t have our usual outlet of competition to keep self-criticism constructive, and have less ability to properly debrief with our social supports. Not to mention increased social media use and opportunity for downward self-comparison! This perfect storm can lead to focusing on insignificant and unhelpful outlets, such as food, body image, excessive training or worse.
To guard against this, invest in your mind. By this we literally mean spend money on services and a support team. Often people resist getting help by saying “it’s too expensive” (a telling distinction from “I can’t afford it”), “I’m not elite enough to access that care”, or just simple procrastination. As in Catriona’s story, to get to the next level of your sport or progress towards your personal goals, you need to be pragmatic and acknowledge that you can’t do it alone. There’s no magic threshold you need to pass to be worthy of investing in a team, so just start right now with whatever you deem most important for you. Support looks different for everyone, but if you have the means, a dietician, PT/exercise physiologist, strength and conditioning coach, and psychologist all offer important services you can use to help navigate both sport and daily demands.
If you, like many of us, feel guilty when taking time out for yourself to rest, seek help, or do things you enjoy, remember that investing in and nurturing yourself also directly helps those around you; because you’ll then be more equipped to care for their needs too. A good question to ask yourself in any situation is: “Would I want someone I love to be doing what I’m doing right now?” The more you can view your actions in such an objective fashion, the more you can see the full picture of their consequences and make decisions based on values rather than fleeting emotions.
We have found that reaching out, communicating, and building strong support teams around us have been incredibly powerful actions for getting us through the sticky situations we get ourselves into. We hope that by investing in and nurturing yourself, you too will learn the most important connection you’ll ever have in life is a deep and honest connection with yourself and your body.
What can I do if my relationship to food is becoming unhealthy?
Someone I care about has an unhealthy relationship with food. What can I do to help?
How can we start looking after ourselves? There’s a lot of information out there on self-care, but here’s some of what we’re trying:
This series was supported by Revvies Energy.