Running on Empty

Five women, three colleges and the disordered eating that unifies them all.

By Melody Mercado
Illustration by Grace Molteni

Participating in college sports is a goal sought after by many women. For some it pays for their education, and for others it takes their athleticism to the next level. Unfortunately, too often the culture and the grind becomes an obsession that takes over the mind and body, leaving the athlete vulnerable.

Sarah McMahon ran for Bradley University.

Before becoming a collegiate athlete, she had always thought that if she ate healthier, and trained harder, she would be better than everyone else. For McMahon, running was an opportunity to earn a degree. As the pressure to go to college increased, she became increasingly strict with her food intake. When she arrived at Bradley in the fall of 2011, she was met with pressure to eat and look a certain way by her team’s coaching staff.

The pressure for perfection, intertwined with an unhealthy team culture, prompted McMahon into starvation, injuries, and unhappiness.

“It’s not what I expected my experience to be like,” says McMahon, “there was a time when I loved running, but I don’t think it was ever in college.”

The pressure to perform at peak fitness levels at all times makes athletes more susceptible to eating disorders than the general population. The risk increases for athletes in aesthetic sports such as cross country, swimming, track, gymnastics and diving. Aesthetic sports are described as sports that emphasize appearance, weight requirements or muscularity.

In a study done by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), over one-third of division one athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa. With many athletes suffering in silence, it’s important that universities take extra measures to seek those athletes out and offer them treatment.

Four women mentioned throughout this article are former National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I (NCAA) athletes and one is a former National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) athlete. They all competed in cross country and track. Each one experienced some form of disordered eating that, for four of them, evolved into eating disorders. Although these women are no longer competing collegiately, their overall health is still an every day battle. While each woman’s story and severity is different, there are many similarities to how their condition came to be.

Certain personalities, along with external and internal factors, influence how an eating disorder can come into existence. According to NEDA, there are three risk factors that are thought to contribute to a female athlete’s vulnerability to an eating disorder. They are social influences emphasizing thinness, performance anxiety and negative self-appraisal of athletic achievement.

Jody Whipple has been a registered dietitian for over 20 years. Six of those years were spent working at Penn State where she worked with collegiate athletes. She now has her own private practice where she has had experience with athletes ranging from middle school, collegiate, post collegiate and older adult athletes. Whipple says personality characteristics that may predispose eating disorders include perfectionism, a black-and-white view of the world, an all-or-nothing attitude and a stronger work ethic.

“While these certain characteristics can serve people very well, and often do, sometimes athletes get in situations where these personality characteristics cause them to go too far in their sport with respect to overtraining, under eating, and subsuming to thin ideals,” says Whipple.

Rachel Steil ran for Aquinas College.

For Steil, running and her control over food was her identity. She strived to be the best, and her obsession with her sport led her into a spiral of eating disorders that lasted for five years.

“I didn’t think it was normal because I felt abnormal. I felt like I was obsessed with food, probably because I wasn’t eating enough,” says Steil.

Steil never linked low weight with being faster. She generally wanted to lose 10 pounds for aesthetic reasons, and when she saw how it correlated with her lower times, she continued to diet and lose weight.

According to Whipple, a common theory among athletes and coaches is that someone who is strong and light will go faster than someone who is stronger and heavier. There can be very negative consequences that result from this belief. According to NEDA, a coach who places emphasize on body weight and shape is a contributing factor to the development of eating disorders in athletes. As a result many athletes go through extreme measures and diet fads in an effort to become lighter.

Steil started with restricting her food, and at the end of her freshman year, she started a raw food diet. She was eating three high-volume meals a day. High-volume meals are big portions with low calories, such as salads and plates of vegetables. She ate very little fat out of fear of gaining weight, decreased her fruit intake because of the sugar, and only ate low-fat dairy products.

“I was happy with my faster running times, but anything outside of running, I was thinking about food and researching food and not a very social person” says Steil.

Coaches can also be culprits of an eating disorder. Coaches who embody a win at-all-cost kind of attitude can perpetrate an unhealthy obsession amongst their athletes.

Sarah McMahon, Kylie McKinney, and Whitney Schumacher are former runners from Bradley University who say their coaches embraced thin ideals and pressured them to lose weight for the good of the team.

In a survey of more than 200 NCAA athletes, ESPNW discovered that 20 percent of female athletes had been called fat by their coach. All three former Bradley athletes say they had been called large or heavy by their head coach, who also frequently told them to lose weight in order to be faster.

“To this day, every time I walk past a window or a mirror, I look at my thighs. I can just hear my coach’s voice in my head telling (me) that my thighs are getting to big,” says McKinney.

McMahon recalls the first week of her freshman year, when her coach placed a huge emphasis on nutrition. Every year at the beginning of cross country season her coach would set up a nutrition presentation presented by the head strength and conditioning coach. This nutrition talk detailed how to eat on certain training days, including diagrams of plates with different types of food such as carbs, vegetables, and protein. The presentation even suggested how to grocery shop, avoiding the middle aisles which contained unhealthy snacks and processed foods.

According to Whipple, there is a lot of misinformation and over-information about nutrition in general, with an emphasis that thin is always better. McKinney also recalls the nutrition talks as unrealistic for distant runners who can average 50 to 70 miles a week.

“There was that culture of ‘desert is bad.’ Weight is important to run fast,” says McKinney.

“There was constant pressure to eat and look a certain way and at the same time run a certain way,” says McMahon.

“I would have a carrot for lunch,” Schumacher says. I stopped going to class and would just lay in my bed and cry.”

After her freshman year, Schumacher developed a thyroid disease, which made training difficult. During the summer, she was lethargic. She was losing her hair and gained 13 pounds in two months as a result of her disease going untreated. When she told her coach her diagnosis over a phone call, she was shocked by his response.

“I remember calling coach and telling him about my situations and him basically making me feel that it was my fault,” says Schumacher, “He would say, ‘You just need to eat less, and I know you’re tired, but you still need to get your miles in. If you’re too tired to run, you need to bike or do something, because 13 pounds is a lot for you.’”

Megan Marshall ran for Penn State.

“Thoughts were planted in to my head like ‘Oh why do I look different, they are fast, maybe I should look like them,’” says Marshall.

Marshall experienced a similar outcome based on a team culture that stressed “good foods” and “bad foods.” Her relationship with food was forever changed.

A research paper from the University of Colorado, referenced a 2013 study from the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology which compared behaviors associated with eating disorders in female and male NCAA DI athletes and nonatheltes. The study found that both athlete groups showed more instances of extreme dieting and weight control behaviors. This suggests that behaviors associated with eating disorders are normalized habits in collegiate athletics.

Triggering and perpetuating are types of risk factors that can aid in the development of an eating disorder. According to the University of Colorado trigger factors include negative comments from coaches or teammates. These comments can be related to poor performance and can convince the athlete that dieting may fix the problem.

“Coach sat me down in his office and shut the door,” says Mckinney. “He said ‘Mckinney, I hate to break this to you, but your weight has been increasing since you came and I think this summer you should try and get down at that weight that you came in at.’ It was a short conversation.”

Perpetuating factors encourage someone to continue an already existing eating disorder. Praise from coaches and teammates due to a correlation of weight loss and performance is an example of this. The University of Colorado also says that this positive feedback can encourage an athlete to continue unhealthy diet habits because it may lead to further success.

McMahon experienced perpetuating factors that led her to continue her eating disorder. Before winter break started in her sophomore year, McMahon’s coach told her to focus on loosing some weight. After starving herself and loosing several pounds she returned to campus and was met with praise from her coach.

“I remember when I came back he said ‘oh you did such a good job, you look so fit.’ And I was like but I’m so unhappy,” says McMahon.

Coaches across all sports at the University of Colorado were surveyed about the ideal body type for their athletes. The majority answered leanness, which the study argues could be a contributing factor to athletes developing eating disorders.

“Especially if it is a high performer or a captain and all the other girls are looking at that and if the coaches are praising them, then of course they are going to question themselves and try to be like that,” says Marshall.

According to Whipple, quality of running, training and strength are better indicators of success with speed and resilience, than body mass index and weight for height.

“Telling a runner that weight loss is their primary key to success is simplistic and potentially dangerous,” Whipple says.

Athletes all have different body types; some athletes naturally lean out as a result of higher mileage and intensified training. Other athletes can exhibit health problems as a result from losing too much weight and not refueling their body properly.

Whipple says an athlete who leans out is not a cause for concern if they still have their period regularly, they aren’t feeling over trained or have heavy leg syndrome, and are not suffering from any injuries.

According to Whipple, a common theory amongst athletes and coaches that has been disseminated is that women don’t get their periods during their athletic season. If an athlete stops getting her period, says Whipple, it’s most commonly a result of overtraining, under eating or a combination of both.

Disordered eating and not menstruating are symptoms of the female athlete triad. The triad begins with an athlete losing too much weight and/or restrictive eating. This causes an athlete to lose her monthly period, which may seem like a blessing, but then extreme fatigue sets in. Eventually, if left untreated, it can cause a loss of bone density. When bone density decreases, athletes become susceptible to serious injuries, such as stress fractures and bone breaks.

McMahon experienced symptoms of the female athlete triad, which included never getting her period and constant low energy.

The ESPNW survey also showed that 14 percent of female athletes had an eating disorder, 5 percent currently have an eating disorder, and 35 percent know of teammates with an eating disorder.

Part of the problem is that coaching staffs and athletic departments don’t know what resources to provide to their athletes to prevent and treat eating disorders—or don’t chose to seek out appropriate resources.

Steil came from a team culture where weight was never a pressing issue, yet there was no education about eating disorders or what disordered eating was.

“They never talked about the possible issues, which made it hard to talk about because I had this secret that nobody else knew. It caused more confusion,” says Steil.

Steil also carried a tremendous amount of guilt on her shoulders, feeling like a fraud and a cheat for relying on weight loss to run faster.

“I’m all for competition and winning,” says Whipple.“But the reality is in the United States, in college, rarely are athletes running to put food on the table or to put a roof over someone’s head. So keeping some perspective and having that start with the coaches is important.”

With such an emphasis placed on the physical well being of an athlete, their mental health should also receive the similar attention.

McKinney, who is getting her masters degree in sports psychology from Minnesota State University, has stressed the importance of screening for anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Whipple also recommends using screening methods such as the EAT26, which is a test of 26 questions created to identify athletes at slight, moderate, and extreme risk for an eating disorder.

“There needs to be an education component to collegiate athletics with body image in sports and eating disorders in sports,” says Whipple. “(Refer) your high-risk people to a dietician or psychologist. Have moderately at risk individuals know what resources are available to them.”

According to McKinney’s research and studies, many people have these issues and don’t even realize it. Often athletes have an image in their heads of what they are supposed to look like.

“When their body doesn’t match that image it causes problems,” says McKinney. “I think coaches need to work on destroying that vision that these girls have.”

Although Whipple says there is so much information linking our neurological system with the rest of our body, it’s taboo to talk about mental health.

“For some reason if something is wrong with you from the neck down, it’s OK to talk about it, but if it’s emotional or mental, that somehow people think you’re crazy,” says Whipple.

McMahon struggled in silence throughout her collegiate career because she thought disordered eating was normal.

During winter break of her fifth year at Bradley, McMahon sat at home browsing Amazon for appetite suppressants. Her boyfriend Chase Coffey, now fiancé, caught her in the act and confronted her right away. McMahon broke down and after a long conversation they agreed that she would see a counselor when school resumed in the spring semester of 2016.

McMahon’s first counseling session through Bradley’s health services was almost three hours long. She felt huge relief — finally someone had told her condition wasn’t normal.

Along with education, dietitians need to be careful with the words used to talk about nutrition. While sports nutrition plays a huge role in someone’s athletic success, educating athletes and nurturing a healthy relationship with food should be strongly encouraged.

Whipple encourages intuitive eating with her clients, many of them athletes of all kinds, which encourages people to eat according to their hunger and their fullness level instead of eating for the number on the scale, time on the clock or the size of their jeans.

Intuitive eating has to do with mindfulness, reducing distractions and decreasing the speed of eating. It embodies changing one’s behavior and developing a good relationship with food. Athletes should exhibit consciousness about quality of food, but also should eat food that they enjoy.

Recovery is often a long journey for athletes with eating disorders. When their collegiate career ends, many carry their eating disorder to the next chapter of their life.

McMahon began seeing a therapist in 2016. Through graduating with her master’s in English, moving to Chicago and getting engaged, she still has weekly meetings with a therapist.

McMahon has also been working with a dietician to improve her relationship with food.

“I do think that more people need to talk about it,” says McMahon, “Otherwise it’s going to keep happening and more people are going to go through exactly what I went through and not enjoy their college experience and have these lingering issues that they are taking with them that they don’t need to.”

Steil began her recovery process after admitting to her mother in an email that she was struggling with an eating disorder. Steil was in a support group and started seeing a therapist and eventually a dietician. Sharing her story was therapeutic, and in 2016 she published a book titled Running in Silence. Her book not only shares her journey but also has questions and prompts at the end of each chapter that help identify if the reader may be at risk.

“I was literally running in silence for so long, and it was really when I began to speak up that I found recovery,” says Steil.

Schumacher described her recovery as a day-by-day process. Her therapist has taught her how to take emotions out of eating and has become more mindful about her decisions to exercise.

“I think honestly it’s just a day-by-day thing for me to think through what I’m thinking and ask myself if it’s valid,” says Schumacher.

The summer after freshman year after attempting a low calorie diet and almost passing out on a long run, McKinney put a stop to her disordered eating. It helped McKinney that her mom and her friend were there to tell her that it wasn’t OK. It clicked with her that disordered eating wasn’t the answer and she never resumed this type of behavior.

“I wasn’t eating enough and it was so bad,” says McKinney. “It was at that moment when I said, ‘This is stupid, I need to eat food. I’m lucky to have a brain that was saying eat more, unfortunately, some people aren’t as lucky.”

In 2015, Marshall realized that she had done some healing on her own, but she still wasn’t really recovered, so she began to see a full-time counselor. Marshall has relied heavily on her faith and has also found peace in sharing her story.

Marshall and Whipple started an organization called The Fly Movement, which implies fueling mind, body and soul; loving yourself the way that you are’ and understanding that you matter and can make a difference.

The Fly Movement does workshops with athletic teams educating them with research-based evidence, information and videos that embody positive body image. The 60-90 minute workshops work to provide information and create an open conversation about body image and eating disorders in sports. Whipple also does individual evaluations with participants and offers follow-ups.

With many athletes struggling in silence, it’s important for athletic departments to offer support and education for their student athletes. Athletes need to know that it’s OK to talk about mental health issues and that it doesn’t make them a less of a person.
“You are not alone. People care about you,” says Marshall.

A proud resident of Chicago, Melody Mercado is a 2019 graduate student of the masters program in journalism at DePaul University. As a writer and former collegiate athlete, Melody is passionate about researching and progressing the discussion regarding the representation of women in sports, and media’s depiction of the female figure. Melody is a recent graduate from Bradley University. Outside of her graduate classes, researching, and writing, Melody is an avid runner and foodie.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.