How I've Redefined Running in Eating Disorder Recovery

I always heard running was therapeutic — a “good for your soul” activity. But for me, it was anything but good for my soul — or body. I can remember being a little girl and hating running — and by hating, I mean I hated running. I would do anything I could to cut our mile runs short in gym class. But there was always something telling me I was supposed to run. Whether it was to “stay in shape” or to be pretty and popular, I knew I needed to run. But no one ever taught me how to run or that it could be fun and therapeutic. Sadly, Girls on the Run did not exist when I was younger. And even though I hated it, I ran anyway, plugging along, feeling as though I ran with bricks tied to my feet.

As my eating disorder evolved over the years, running became my addiction and punishment. I always considered myself a terrible runner, so I would never allow myself to run with friends or along the lakes — both of which make running enjoyable. But the word “fun” did not previously exist in my running or workout vocabulary. According to my inner critic and eating disorder, runs were a true workout, a punishment on so many levels, both mentally and physically. Like most things in my distorted world, running was surrounded with self-enforced rules and regulations. I could not run with friends because I was not good enough. I could not run on scenic and popular paths because I might be seen. When I was 12 years old, I would run from wall to wall in my room because if I went outside someone might see me and laugh.

This fear continued throughout my life. In college, I found the most secluded track to run on. I spent many lonely hours running in a boring circle again and again with nothing to look at but gravel. I hated it. Then at age 28, I ran my first 5K. That was a huge step for me: running with others. Thoughts like: OMG. What if they see what a horrible runner I am? plagued me. I did my best to put my fears aside, but I still beat myself up for being a crappy runner the whole time. Shortly after that 5K, I raced in my first triathlon. But even after racing, I still struggled to allow myself to run with others in my training group. On some level, I was still that 12-year-old girl stuck running circles in her room. I always feared they would realize what an atrocious runner I was and make fun or leave me behind.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I packed up all of my triathlon gear when I returned home from treatment. It was difficult, but necessary. My running shoes suddenly became my regulated 30 minutes per day walking shoes. This year, after going through pregnancy, delivery, sleepless nights and weaning from breast feeding, I finally found myself itching to return to exercise. Not for calorie burning or weight loss purposes, just for the pure enjoyment of it. Recently, I emailed with my former treatment therapist and mentioned my exercise comeback. I told her I hated calling it “working out.” That just seemed so negative. She suggested I call it “playing,” because that is exactly what it should be. I quickly adopted her advice because it just seems to fit where I am right now. My return to “playing” coincides with my first semester coaching my Girls on the Run team. So lucky for me, twice a week I get the best reminder of what the sport is truly about. It is not about burning calories or pushing yourself until your body breaks. You do not have to run a certain mile time or go a certain distance per day in order to call yourself a runner. You simply have to lace up your shoes and head out the door. My girls are runners. I am a runner.

My ongoing challenge in this recovery journey is to continue to put myself out there and do things because I want to do them, casting aside the fear and anxiety that I may not be the best. I might not be perfect and I might just fail at a few things along the way, but that is life, isn’t it? Today, I run tall and strong with the wind in my face and the pavement under my soles. I run because it simply feels good to move my body. It feels free to jog in stride while looking out over the lakes. It is all so very new to me. I finally get it now. I get why people love running. There is something about the melody of your feet as you glide across the pavement and the sun as it hits your face on a clear day.  I also have the added joy of hearing happy baby coos radiate from my jogging stroller as my he enjoys the cool fall breeze on his cherub cheeks. I may not run far. I may not run fast. I simply run. I consider myself lucky to have the ability to run again. It is truly an extraordinary gift. Running has now been redefined for me. Exercise or “playing” has been redefined.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via efetova.

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