Weighing the Consequences: Running a Thin Line

Jamie Tanata

Jamie Tanata

The pressure to be fast, to win, to be perfect and to be thin. When is it enough to drive a runner to an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa?

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, a NCAA survey in 1999 found 64 percent of all collegiate female athletes had experienced an eating disorder at some time.

Researchers estimated 62 percent of teenage female distance runners have eating disorders compared with five percent among all teenage girls.

SDSU’s former Head Cross-Country/Track and Field Coach, Scott Underwood has dealt with several runners that have battled the disease over his 19 years of coaching.

“Running is the toughest sport to work with because of that aspect,” he said.

Underwood said many factors in society play a major role in how people perceive themselves, especially women. Such influences to be thin generate from magazines and television.

“Society in general [pressure runners]. It’s the image to be thin, it doesn’t help and then running to be great distance runners,” he said.

Runners can be misled by basing performance on the way successful runners appear.

“[That’s] part of the problem of distance running. Many women that are seen as the best women in the U.S. are fairly thin and competing well,” Underwood said.

He said that could lead to a major misconception among runners. They begin losing a little weight and realizing their performance becomes better, which drives them to lose more.

“They just get to a point where they don’t see reality; they just think they’re heavy and overweight and try to lose more,” he said.

The disorder can be disguised in a runner since they still perform successfully while inside their bodies are suffering.

As diagnosis cannot be determined solely on an athlete’s performance, it is often denied, ignored or even unrecognized.

“There comes a point that can affect your health and performance,” he said.

Underwood said he has seen it effect runners in very severe cases. One successful runner he coached transferred Brigham-Young University. She was also suffering from an eating disorder at the time.

At Brigham, bone density tests are given to make sure the runners are eating adequately and getting enough calcium in their diet to prevent injuries such as stress fractures. She found out after being tested that her bone density was the same as a 60-year women.

In another case, Underwood coached a girl who started her running career in college since cross-country was never offered at her high school.

“She wanted to be an all-American,” he said. “She tried to be good at everything.”

He said her drive to be a successful runner, drove her to the disease.

“There was a certain point where I recognized she was in trouble,” he said.

However, for many of the runners Underwood has coached over the years, their problem with battling weight rooted from high school.

“After coaching some of them, they had problems before they came to SDSU,” he said.

When making recruiting decisions, in most cases he didn’t realize they had a problem or how serious it was.

“Parents don’t tell you and you don’t have the information,” he said.

After coaching for several years, he said he has come to recognize those who had a problem or fit the criteria of potentially becoming anorexic.

“Certain personality traits that anorexics tend to have, we would tend to watch them more closely,” he said.

“It’s tough; it’s hard. Our sport more than most any other sports are the personalities that you have in a distance runner,” he said.

The hard-working, dedicated, straight-A students that have to excel at everything they do are the ones he says are the most prone to the disease.

“Those who are worried about every single grade, test and race … that would be a red flag to me to be that concerned with everything,” he said. “Not good to the mental health and to have an eating disorder.”

Many things would clue him in if a runner was showing warning signs of an eating disorder. He would hear things through the grapevine by teammates telling him if someone wasn’t eating much. He would also notice runners who wouldn’t eat with the team when they went out to eat at restaurants and used the excuse that they didn’t like anything on the menu.

“Any time they were overly concerned with what they ate,” he said was a good indication.

The one thing Underwood said he made sure of as a coach was not putting pressure on the athletes.

“I work hard at not putting pressure on them,” he said. “I tried to take the pressure off them.”

He said he never expected his runners to be superstars; he just wanted them to enjoy themselves.

“There was less pressure from me than in high school,” he said.

There are times when someone who had developed an eating disorder blamed their coaches for their problem.

“It’s a touchy subject for the coaches, because sometimes they can be attacked by them.”

Underwood said the pressure his athletes were feeling was only from inside.

“It’s perceived pressure. It’s what you feel inside,” he said. “Their personal worth is how they perform with things, and that’s a sad thing.”

According to NCAA nutrition and performance guidelines, eating disorders usually develop long before the individual is ever involved in athletics and is often an expression of underlying emotional distress.

Underwood said from time to time he would check runners’ iron-levels to make sure they were eating well. Talking to the team about proper nutrition and the food groups was another thing he would do with them to make sure they were eating right.

“Sometimes you could only do so much to regulate it,” he said. “[It is] something you can’t totally prevent.”