Almost everybody has thought about taking part in a Marathon or Iron Man challenge at some point (and then promptly gone out for a run in the cold and thought ‘absolutely fuck that’), but the reality of training for an extreme physical challenge can be especially difficult for people who have recovered from eating disorders (EDs), as often exercise and dietary changes go hand-in-hand with disordered behaviour.
Running a Marathon can be an incredibly powerful and rewarding challenge, but such an extreme feat does have the potential to trigger a disordered mind-set. It’s like anything: for some, it’s best not to go near it, but for others, it can be a positive challenge that impacts your life forever.
The moment I finished the London Marathon was a strange one; I was exhausted, salt crystals forming white on my face from sweat, ankles searing, crying with relief. I also felt strangely, kind of, nothing. Finishing the race not only ended my chapter of trying to care about sports gear and going on hungover Sunday runs, it also finished my chapter of defining myself as an anorexia survivor. Taking on a challenge like the Marathon made me feel ‘nothing’ because for the first time in years I wasn’t thinking about myself or my illness or anything else. It was like I had reset to zero.
According to The Priory Group, there are over 1.6 million people suffering from diagnosed or undiagnosed eating disorders throughout the UK. However, it has been proved by countless people that a full recovery is possible, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t partake in an immensely rewarding physical challenge if you fully believe it will not harm your recovery.
Physical challenges shouldn’t be an experience you have to miss out on or not enjoy because of a past ED, and there are ways to ensure your recovery remains safeguarded during the process, but the question remains: how does one navigate training and nutrition without triggering a disordered mind-set?
I talked to specialists and runners about how best to go through training after recovery. Please note that training won’t be the same for everybody, so please listen to your body and do what is best for you.
Ask yourself if your mind-set has changed
My friends and I knew that I was ready to take on a Marathon because my mind-set towards exercise had completely changed. I exercise for fun and I knew that training would not be dangerous for me, partly because the reason I wanted to run so badly in the first place was for a charity close to my heart, MyAware and not for other, potentially triggering, reasons.
Ruby Tandoh, a British baker, columnist and author, took to Twitter to beautifully describe her experience of signing up to the London Marathon after recovering from her ED.
Ms Tandoh said: “I used to run to burn calories: I would find out exactly how much I could burn and run with that, and only that, in mind. I’d stop as soon as I’d allegedly burned off whatever packet of crisps or burger I’d eaten before, and all through the run I was oblivious to the feeling of the crisp autumn air on my skin or the crunch of bronzed leaves underfoot.
“I was totally blinkered to the bliss of gulping in those big lungfuls of air and feeling my heart pounding in my chest. I was alive, but I was barely living.”
Only you can decide for yourself, but make sure to double-check with your family, friends or a doctor before you sign up.
A spokesperson for ED charity B-eat said: “We have taken advice from senior clinicians working in treating people with eating disorders, and their view was that helping people to see sports and exercise in a healthy, positive way is an important part of any recovery.”
Take it step by step
You do not have to over-exercise, wear yourself down or become exhausted during Marathon training. If you give yourself enough time to train with a sensible plan you absolutely can take it very slowly, increasing your distances moderately week-by-week.
I had one small wobble with a few months left to the race, when I pushed myself to run more than I was ready to, and broke down crying in the middle of London because I was too tired to finish my route. Instead of pushing myself further I took a few deep breaths, stretched out, and got the train home.
On every single run, no matter how short, always have an exit plan; carry an Oyster card, money and a phone with you at all times in case you’re too tired and need to get home fast.
Treating yourself well is the backbone of training. Make sure you’re eating more than enough, with more snacks and bigger portions than you’re used to. Plan treats for when you’ve gone on big runs, make sure that you make carbohydrates a priority, and take a lot of baths.
They’re absolutely grotesque, but make sure you stock up on those gel packages you see athletes using on long runs; they taste like ultra-concentrated gummi bears, but they’ll make sure you have enough energy for a big run.
Tom Fairbrother is a professional runner who suffered from bulimia nervosa, before recovering fully and achieving his goal of running 10 Marathons for B-eat. Mr Fairbrother completed Marathons before, during and after his ED, but stated that a different mind-set, along with better nutrition and strength, was one of the reasons his running improved drastically after recovery. In fact, due to his recovery, he achieved a personal best of 2:34 at 2015’s Berlin Marathon.
Mr Fairbrother said: “Taking on such a difficult challenge meant that I would need to fuel myself properly. Having run Marathons before, during and after my eating disorder, I have experienced the dangers and negative performance consequences of under-eating, and also the benefit of carb-loading for races…
“I made sure to recover from training runs and races by drinking a protein shake immediately, and then ensuring I was eating nutritious, salty, carb and protein-rich foods post-run or post-race.
“I also stayed mindful of the fact that I had chosen to run the Marathons — I wasn’t being forced to. By viewing training and running as optional and a hobby, I found I looked forward to my runs even more, rather than seeing it was something I had to do.”
Drop out if you have to
A spokesperson for B-eat said: “Please do put your health first and don’t take part in any fundraising activity or training which could put your health and wellbeing in jeopardy… Please do not undertake any fundraising activity which could harm your health or jeopardise your recovery.”
Enjoy the process!
Make sure that you savour and enjoy the build-up to the race. Marathon training is a truly unique and pretty strange undertaking. Enjoy the fresh air and don’t take the amazing journey for granted.
Mr Fairbrother said: “Since my recovery, I have found that my performances have improved dramatically as I am now stronger physically and mentally, and I have bundles of energy — this has given me a lot of confidence and reinforced my belief that my recovery is the best thing that has happened to me and my greatest achievement.
“I now view running as something that I can enjoy safely, and it has been instrumental in my recovery as it gives me a chance to enjoy some fresh air and celebrate my new-found strength, validating my recovery.”
If the contents of this article have affected you, please call the B-eat helpline on 0345 634 1414 or use its online message board at www.b-eat.co.uk.
Emily Chudy is a writer and journalist from south London. She has been published in getwestlondon, The F-Word, Parallel Mag and more.