Most people are looking forward to the festive season and the opportunity to relax and indulge a little after a long year.  But for many sportspeople it can be a season to be endured rather than enjoyed particularly in relation to eating and drinking. Many restrict their diet believing that constant weight loss can assist in improving performance even to the point of the body’s functions beginning to shut down.

Runners believe thinner the better but nothing could be further from the truth. 

The condition can bring on a variety of health problems in both men and women including a fall in hormone levels, a deterioration in bone density, a drop in metabolic rate and mental health problems.  These symptoms collectively can indicate a condition called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (Red-S).

While there is no research to support the theory that less is better, it is a belief widely held in distance running circles from parkrunners to Olympic elite. The pressure to run fasterand run longer can be a catalyst for developing eating disorders. If other factors are also involved, such as peer pressure and/or low image self-esteem,the danger of developing an eating disorder can be increased exponentially.

An English runner Anna Boniface was featured this week in an investigation by the BBC’s Five Live radio station. Opportunity knocked for the Reading AC athlete when she recorded 2:37:07 in the 2017 London Marathon and was selected to represent England at the Toronto Marathon later that year.

But ten miles into the Canadian race, on her international debut, the 26-year-olds ankle fractured. Subsequent tests showed worse damage to her body, because in addition to the stress fracture of her ankle, she also had poor bone density including osteoporosis in herspine. This made future fractures more probable than possible.

“It was a lot to do with my training volume and not eating enough – not being wide enough in my food groups, being restrictive with carbohydrates,” she told BBC 5 Live Investigates. “I was training twice a day, I was running 100-plus miles aweek at times, and you burn up a lot of energy with that, and from a runner’s perspective you get it into your mind that you need to be this race weight. You get caught up in this cycle of running really fast, wanting to lose a little more weight, push that race weight a little bit more, running faster, and then just breaking, which is what happened.”

Fortunately for Anna Boniface,her condition was diagnosed before lasting damage was done.  After an extended rest and rehabilitation, she is now back running again albeit only in parkruns close to her home. Just a few weeks ago she recorded 18:03 at the Woodley event indicating she is getting back to her best form. Others are not so lucky and these behaviours spiral quickly out of control, leading rapidly to an eating disorder such as Anorexia or Bulimia.

Early intervention is crucial, and parents, coaches, or loved ones of a distance runner have an important role to play in preventing someone from experiencing many of the dangerous consequences that result from having an eating disorder. It is important to be aware of the risk factors which include: –

  • More frequent occurrences of injuries, such as sprains or muscle strains
  • Decreased concentration, coordination, and energy
  • Decreased social interaction with coaches and teammates
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Physical complaints, such as light-headedness, muscle aches, dizziness
  • Prolonging training beyond what is required for sport
  • Continued training, even when sick or injured

On Sunday, the #Trainbravecampaign is being launched to raise awareness of the risks of Red-S,particularly among promising amateur sports people who may be trying to improve their performance without giving enough thought to their diet. A little relaxation of the training regime will do no harm, probably a lot of good, over the next couple weeks.