The Struggle Behind the Clock: The competitive female running culture
May 1, 2020
*This is adapted from my final ethnography assignment for my undergraduate career. It was a fitting assignment to sum up what I have learned beyond the classroom in my four years and how I hope to help young female runners in the future. Read more about my journey as a runner and a student athlete here. Note, this article may be triggering for those who are currently struggling with an eating disorder
I am competitive and a perfectionist. Sometimes this results in high rewards from diligence and hard work. But this can also be a deadly combo, or at least in my case a sickly one. After a disappointing freshmen year of D1 college track, I decided I was going to do everything in my power to get in the best shape of my life and be the best athlete I could. I was going to make my coaches, teammates, and parents proud. This included monitoring food intake and cleaning up my diet. While at first I found success, this ultimately led to a downhill spiral that got me the opposite of my goal: sitting on the sidelines with an eating disorder.
I have experienced first-hand what it is like feel insecure about food and my body and how that related to my sport and gender, but I wanted to know whether these feelings were universal and how they differ among other female athletes. I conducted ethnographic observations and interviews among my fellow Vanderbilt track and field teammates to help answer the question how does being a competitive female runner amidst our social, cultural, and athletic norms and standards affect the eating patterns of competitive female runners and does this create physical or psychological food and/or body insecurity for some athletes.
How does being a competitive female runner amidst our social, cultural, and athletic norms and standards affect the eating patterns of competitive female runners?
3 female athletes from the Vanderbilt Track and Field team who were willing to share their experience as a DI runner were interviewed in a semi-structured format. Consent was obtained to participate in the interview and have it recorded after the project aims were explained. Notes were taken during the interviews, and the recordings were used to gather transcripts after completion. The semi-structure interview format allowed for guiding questions to keep the participants focused on the research question but gave them space to express their opinions and give any stories or experiences that would enrich the data. A few sample questions include: “In what ways have you changed the way you eat because you are an athlete? A female?” and “How does greater society impact your relationship with food and your body?”
After the completion of the interviews, I compiled the data and qualitatively analyzed them to find common themes to describe and explain food insecurity and relate these back to my own experiences. I was surprised by what each person highlighted but found that many of the topics brought up were thoughts I had already had myself. Pulling the concepts and quotes together led to a more complete picture of food insecurity and allowed me to fill in the gaps my personal experience had left jaded, forgotten, or chosen to ignore. I discovered several main themes of food and body insecurity in female runners:
diet changes as a desire to better performance
small innocent changes turned into drastic measures
the body revealing nature of the sport
society’s pressures for being a female
indirect negative influence of coaches
an society’s obsession with food.
These concepts work separately and together, forming a potentially toxic environment that can create food insecurity in female runners.
Changing Diet for Performance
When I first started changing my diet, it was as a desire to be better. I had a very successful high school track career, and a very unsuccessful freshman track career. I had an injury in the middle of the year but did not see this as an excuse for my performance. After freshman year, I was embarrassed that I was not living up to the expectations I had set for myself and felt I was letting my coaches, parents, and myself down for not being “good enough.” These feelings of lesser value drove my changing food habits. I thought to be the best athlete I needed to eat in a certain way, weigh a certain amount, and look a certain way. When looking at some of the best female runners, many are very lean and skinny. In my head, to be fast meant to look like that.
Through my interviews I realized I was not the only who felt or feels this way. Of those interviewed, they all confessed they did at one point, or still do at times think you have to look a certain way to perform their best. To some extent this is true, being in shape looks a certain way. But as one interviewee astutely points out, “It is specific to every individual…unique for every person (AS),” and more importantly is based on how you feel, rather than how you look. Nevertheless, all the girls I interviewed expressed changing their diet in order to better their performance. As competitive runners, we all wanted to be better, to improve our times, and thought that changing our diet is the path towards improvement. Even if changing our diet did not directly translate to faster times, at least it showed that we were trying. As one interviewee explains, “If I was smaller, I would run faster. Even if I didn’t run faster, at least I was doing everything I could (AS).”
Unfortunately for many young female athletes, myself included, it is easy to believe your performance determines your worth. Until recently, I thought of myself as a runner, a track and field athlete. It was a core part of my identity. Because of this, I found my self-worth through running and my performance. If I wasn’t performing well, I thought I was losing self-value. As a teammate bluntly states, “I didn’t see value in myself if I wasn’t running fast (KB).” To regain that value, I, her, and many other female runners turn to changing your eating habits to try to better performance.
“If I was smaller, I would run faster. Even if I didn’t run faster, at least I was doing everything I could.”
The Blurry Line Between Greatness and Sickness
One of the challenging things about this topic and running in general, is the small margin of error between being great and being impaired, either mentally or physically. As one teammate explains, “It’s hard to draw the line between being lean and successful and having an eating disorder” (MS). The difficulty with running and sports in general, is that to be great, you cannot have large amounts of body fat or constantly fueling yourself with fast food, and it requires diligence and hard work. But that diligence and monitoring can go to far. Some people, including many of the great athletes, know their body and understand nutrition and physiology in enough detail that they can avoid highly restrictive eating patterns that disrupt physical and mental functioning, and instead remain strong, healthy, and fast. But the reality is that for most, what starts as innocent changes to better performance and increase fitness, goes too far into the realm of disordered eating behaviors.
For some, this might just be from a lack of education and a lack of food literacy specifically when it relates to athletic ability. Healthy eating can boost performance. There is a reason why sports teams have nutritionists on staff. But many people are not aware of the complexities of nutrition, especially as a high caliber athlete. For one teammate, eating healthier meant focusing on eating a lot of fruits and vegetables. This is a critical part to a healthy diet, but as a high intensity athlete she was not getting enough of the other macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) and calories in general to sustain her training. For her, she was not purposefully restricting her diet; she just didn’t know. Another teammate remarked on a lack of education specific to vegetarianism. After switching to be a vegetarian for ethical reasons at a young age, she had trouble finding resources to ensure she was getting enough protein and essential nutrients.
However, for others including myself, it was not just a lack of education, but habits that turned into destructive thoughts and behaviors. As I started restricting that summer after freshman year, I started seeing results, feeling more in shape and PR’ing in the 5k. I felt GOOD. Why should I not keep going down the same path? My restrictive patterns became worse. I hardly ever ate bread or pasta, two foods I used to call my favorite. Even after talking to our team doctor and several nutritionists that I should try to increase my caloric intake and up my body weight and fat percentage, my mind had become obsessed with restrictive eating, and I felt it was my path to success. I could rationally express that my current state would lead to injury and breakdown and other possible negative consequences, but I could not change those rationales into actions. Instead of gaining weight, I kept losing. I would tell myself that I was satisfied after eating a meal or snack, but as a teammate similarly experienced, “I always wanted to feel hungry and never full” (AS).
Restrictive eating behaviors is common among female athletes. The prevalence of clinical eating disorders or eating disorder symptoms ranges from 16 to 47%, depending on the type of sport and research methodology (as cited in Nazem & Ackerman, 2012). I was diagnosed with anorexia, one of the interviewees was diagnosed with bulimia, and I know of others just within my team that have struggled with disordered eating behaviors. Disordered eating causes food insecurity, not because the individual does not have physical access to food, but because of the psychological insecurity that prevents eating enough food.
The Added Challenges of Being Female
While running and performance can be the driver to food insecurity, this is compounded with being female. This is not to say male athletes do not experience food or body insecurity, but the social and cultural pressures are stronger for females. Pressure “comes from both sides (MS)” as society tells females they need to be thin and fit, and the running world seems to say you must be skinny to be successful. Our culture has beauty norms and standards, that even with the increasing body positivity movements, impact females, both athletes and nonathletes alike. As one interviewer said, “Society values curves in the right places (KB).”
“Society values curves in the right places.”
This is especially true in the social media age, where athletes are on full display and “influencers” are present everywhere and are getting paid to look a certain way and promote a certain lifestyle. This creates a “have to (AS)” toxic environment for many individuals, as they start to think you have to look a certain way to perform or be valued at a certain place. Females can be very critical of our bodies, our own worse enemy as they say. As on interviewee pointed out, females often want their bodies to look a certain way because they think that what men want based on the societal norms that have been ingrained, but in reality, “guys don’t care (MS).” Another teammate recounted how she second guesses herself, telling herself, “no I don’t need this (KB)” when deciding what to eat because of the societal impacts she feels. Usually, she can override these thoughts, but she recognizes these pressures.
Many times, this pressure and these influences are “unconscious (MS)” through magazines and social media, but can also be perpetuated by our family, friends, and teammates. One teammate recalls how when growing up she observed her mom trying different diets, and another mentioned how their mom encouraged the new “healthier” eating patterns. In my experience, after I initially started losing weight, I received a lot of compliments about how “fit” and “good” I looked, including comments from my teammates and coaches. I started to pride myself in how I looked. These external rewards perpetuated my thoughts that what I was doing was right and there was no reason to change.
Coaches do more than write workouts
Interactions with coaches can propagate food insecurity among young females. I don’t recall talking about proper nutrition or eating disorders and body image with my coaches in high school. In college, my coaches have talked about nutrition, but on the side of improving and monitoring your diet. I remember one conversation in which my coach told us we might have to make “sacrifices” to be great, including cutting out bagels and other carbohydrates. Several other teammates have felt pressured by the coaches to lose weight.
And beyond nutrition, body image and disordered eating was never brought up. It was taboo. It only came into discussion for me after I was diagnosed with an eating disorder and my recovery after. My teammates felt similarly. Most said they did not talk about food or their body with their high school coaches, “it wasn’t part of my relationship with my coach (AS).” In college, those who I interviewed had varying perspectives of respective coaches, but in general there was a lack of open discussion with the coaches and felt “largely unaddressed and ignored (AS).” Most discussion was left to our nutritionist, though she has limited availability and is spread across multiple teams. Even if coaches are not directly promoting restriction, their lack of proactive discussion and praise for how their athletes look, can indirectly drive food and body insecurity.
Objectification of the Runner Body
Additionally, one important aspect with running is that it is a sport in which your body is on full display and it is a sport all about comparison. Running, it is just you and your body. No other balls or equipment; just you, some shoes, and a clock. And running nowadays is a very revealing sport. Uniforms are practically underwear and a sports bra. Team practice is largely conducted without a shirt on. You are constantly able to observe others and are aware others may be looking at you. Additionally, in other sports, there may be several ways to determine how “good” a player is. In running, there is only one thing: time. You are either faster or you aren’t, you either PR or you don’t. The physical demands of running are intense. There is a reason why some people say they hate running.
Because of the constant display of your body and ability, this makes it easy to objectify your body and compare yourself to others. Especially being on a team with a lot of girls who are just as good, if not better, than you, it is easy to feel like you are in constant comparison with others. This can be a driver of food insecurity and disordered eating behaviors: “A lot of my negative feelings were due to comparison to others not just own innate desire to perform (AS).” In a locker room full of girls, it is easy to compare your body and your ability to those around you. Especially coming in as a freshmen it is easy to look at older girls and see their bodies determined purely on diet, not consistent years of training, and think to yourself, “that [my diet] is why I don’t look like that (KB).”
In my experience, I began not only comparing my times and ability, but how my body looked, how much I was eating, how much “better” I was eating. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “comparison is the thief of joy,” and I would agree with that statement. During my eating disorder and my constant vigilance over my food and others, I was not happy. It became harder and harder to enjoy the food I loved, I was anxious, and I was constantly thinking about food.
“A lot of my negative feelings were due to comparison to others not just own innate desire to perform.”
Society’s Obsession With Food
Society does not just put standards on what your body should look like, it puts standards and morals around food. As one interviewee explains, “Our society is obsessed with food (MS).” So much of our social lives revolve around food, whether it be getting dinner with your friends or catching up at a coffee shop. New diets and supplements are being constantly marketed, and society increasingly places “value” on food. Additionally, food acts a social cues and markers of social status. Not everyone has access to the same sources and access to food. Because of the food apartheid in the United States (Brones, 2018), racism and systemic unjust food systems leave some with the ability to buy “good” food and others only able to afford “bad” food. The labels society has created for types of food creates a further chasm between those who can afford it and those who can’t. While I would argue you do not need to be rich to eat a well-balanced diet, $10 green juices versus a $2 fast food burger perpetuates that you do.
Caught in a toxic net of factors
The positionality of being a young, female, competitive runner at a profound academic and athletic institution contributed to my personal struggle with food insecurity, and many other find themselves with a similar identity. The perfectionist desire to perform better, society’s female standards and obsession with food, and running’s exhibitory nature places us in a position that can be a toxic environment and lead to disordered eating behaviors and food and body insecurity.
Additionally, the presence of elite runners can be damaging. Most professional and high caliber collegiate athletes are still very lean. Even if they promote food security and a healthy body image, “you still see their bodies (MS)” and it doesn’t seem to match up. It is easy to “get in your head (KB)” that being successful requires looking a certain way.
However, not all hope is lost. Each teammate I talked to was hopeful about the future of competitive running, remarking how more professional runners are starting to speak up about body image, including Mary Cain and her remarkable statement last fall (highly recommend watching this video if you haven’t). Trainers and coaches are getting more knowledgeable about eating disorders and how to talk to their athletes, and society is moving towards more body positivity. Still, little has noticeably changed, as one interviewee explained, “It’s like climate change, it’s brought up a lot, but no one actively does anything to change the culture (MS).”
“It’s like climate change, it’s brought up a lot, but no one actively does anything to change the culture.”
Going forward, the culture around food in competitive running can not just be “talked” about but needs to be acted upon so runners competitiveness, drive, and determination turns into an asset instead of hinderance. This means open conversations in the locker room and between coaches and athletes, this means teaching females at a younger age about body positivity and the importance of correctly fueling your body, and this means transparency by athletes, both amateur and professional, about their own journeys to rediscovering a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
For months, I struggled, and still do at times, with food and body insecurity. I had placed all my worth on my performance and my looks. I would not wish that feeling on anyone. The female competitive running culture can be a dangerous combination, but it doesn’t have to end in disaster. I hope with more activism and knowledge and openness, more people will learn to love their bodies and understand that while yes, being great does take hard work, diligence, and persistence, it does not take restriction, anxiety, or insecurity.
Brones, A. (2018, August 2). Food apartheid: The root of the problem with America’s groceries. the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/15/food-apartheid-food-deserts-racism-inequality-america-karen-washington-interview
Nazem, T., & Ackerman, K. (2012). The female athlete triad. Sports Health, 4(4), 302-311. doi:10.1177/1941738112439685