“For the distance girls, is this a disorder? Is this just what you need for athleticism? Are the two mutually exclusive?” Kate asked. “It’s hard to draw the line for any psychological disorder, but it’s especially hard with eating disorders with athletes, who are perfectionists, who are under a ton of pressure from the athletics and the academics—is that an excuse for not eating? Is that an excuse for being too skinny? I don’t know. I wish it were that simple.”
“GOODNESS, I NEED TO DO THAT AS WELL”
For many, this preoccupation with diet is perpetuated by two concerns: wanting to perform well for the team and wanting to be aligned with the team.
However, athletes are aware that their sports require a precise balance between dietary restriction and nutritional needs. Too much weight shed or too restrictive of a diet would produce the opposite effect of what was desired, debilitating their performances completely.
“[The coaches] don’t want any of their athletes to be starving themselves because then they won't be effective rowers,” Heron said. “We’re not going to win races with someone who doesn’t have the energy to even practice.”
For one individual, however, this effort to strike a supposed sweet spot only exacerbated the existing issues in her sport’s nutritional habits.
“I think it was always the generic, ‘eat healthy or else hard work goes to waste.’ Eat healthy or all these hundreds of hours will be for nothing—I guess you could call it a fear tactic,” Kate said.
Kate stated that this “or else” mentality convinced her to look to her older teammates for advice in how to avoid “wast[ing]” her training
“I think [seeing how the older girls acted] definitely made me think twice before I would open a bag of chips, as opposed to a banana or something,” Kate said. “You just look up to these girls. They’re phenomenal athletes...and if they’re eating an orange and going on to win the Ivy League Championships, goodness, I need to do that as well.”
However, perhaps due to the importance of endurance in long-distance running, eating concerns continue to affect a majority of cross country teams.
“I would say it’s very rare for a distance runner in college not [to be] somewhere on the spectrum of disordered eating,” Kroshus said. “[On my team at Princeton, there was a] disordered preoccupation with food that I think we thought at the time was very normal, but looking back now was clearly problematic…. [I feel] that our eating behaviors were really tied into feeling like there was something wrong with us."
“I think we had a pretty normal culture for the sport—some shining stars, some people who had real issues, but most people somewhere in the middle trying to figure it out for themselves,” she added.
“MAK[ING] NUTRITION A NORMATIVE CONVERSATION”
While disordered eating affects athletes on a day-to-day level, so too does it have consequences for the months and years that follow.
The long term effects are myriad. Eating disorders and disordered eating can result in anomalous heart rate patterns, pregnancy complications, kidney failures, and earlier age of death. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, nearly half of those with eating disorders fit the clinical criteria for depression.