Runners, a group particularly at risk for eating disorders
8 mins read

Runners, a group particularly at risk for eating disorders

One morning in 2015, at the end of a lackluster running season, Maxime Lopes, a sub-elite athlete, threw himself at the food in his hotel, hungry. A craving synonymous with the trigger: “I understood at that moment that I had a troubled diet,” says this marathon fan. I deprived myself of carbohydrates, oils, cereals. I was doing intermittent fasting. I was a hygienist, obsessed with my weight and not eating enough. »

Up to 25% of sports practitioners, even amateurs, have an abnormal relationship with their plate, informs Anne-Laure Laratte, dietician and specialist in eating disorders. Running “is one of the highest risk practices with the idea that the lighter you are, the “simpler” the sport, the more performance is possible”.

Indeed, you will have a better chance of breaking the barrier of 40 minutes per 10 km – the holy grail of many amateur runners – if you weigh 60 kg rather than 120, defends Sophie* (first name changed). It was in the hope of this kind of performance that the thirty-year-old “fell into it” in turn, as she periphrases. The profile of most elite runners – with bodies almost devoid of any fat – plunged her even further into this abyss of deprivation.

Do the means justify hunger?

“In absolute terms, yes, the less you weigh, the faster you are. The question is: “How much weight do you have to lose to be faster?” And above all: “Is it worth it?”, she points out. Destroying your health for a few seconds on a timer that no one cares about… When you realize it, it’s often too late. »

Beyond his own exploits, Maxime Lopes is also a private coach for other runners. When a new athlete arrives, they must complete a one-hour test, particularly on their diet, in order to detect potential problems. “For me, one of the biggest redflag, it is paradoxically someone who says: “You have to treat yourself from time to time”, describes the coach. “Once in a while” means there is too much control in the majority of his meals. »

Just like the others, this French expatriate in Quebec, “where mental health is much less taboo”, does not deny a link between weight and time. But there’s a nuance: “I don’t think this lever should be activated voluntarily. Just that with the right knowledge, we will intuitively find a good diet, which will bring us to our performance weight.”

The dangers of permanent control

Thomas Pouteau, amateur runner and author of the book I’m coming back from anorexia (Editions Frison-Roche, 2019), experienced the classic path to eating disorders. After a sporting disappointment coupled with a family bereavement, he decides to outperform “to take revenge” on the events “and prove to everyone”. To do this, he sets out to lose “one or two kilos, in order to be faster. I exercised a lot more, paid attention to my diet, and was obsessed with controlling my weight and my body.” The beginning of “three years of hell”.

Control is the other component of the greatest risks in running. To progress as efficiently as possible in this very thankless sport, you have to run at very specific and mathematical paces. For example, jogging at 65% of your heart rate, running at 90% of your maximum aerobic speed, or kilometer times that can be determined to the nearest second. “All this control, particularly technological with connected watches, ends up being harmful,” believes Thomas Pouteau. We are too authoritarian towards ourselves, we become obsessed with data – heart rate, speed, weight – eliminating any notion of pleasure. »

From social excellence to martyrdom

Fabien Ohl, sports sociologist at the University of Lausanne and co-author of the article Eating disorders and practice of fitness sports in the journal STAPS (2015), analyzes: “Running is a sport practiced mainly by higher socio-professional categories, where a form of excellence and body control is socially valued, whereas among popular categories, it is more muscle and strength that are emphasized, with therefore less risk of anorexia. »

Maxime Lopes names another dangerous “virtue”: “The philosophy of “No pain, no gain” remains omnipresent in our sport. Our Judeo-Christian culture leads many runners into a martyr syndrome, “I show that I suffer, that I sacrifice my body and my health for my goals, so that those around me will be admired”. »

“I’m still paying the price today”

Fabien Ohl continues: “Unlike classic anorexia, which is based on aesthetic criteria, therefore considered superficial socially, the athlete deprives himself for performance, a goal that he considers noble. He will therefore pay less attention to his troubles. » Thomas Pouteau testifies to a very long consideration, on his part, but also from doctors or certain relatives.

The young man has been dealing with injuries for two years. “Over time, the body says stop, it’s untenable. I still pay the price today. » From now on, he runs “always accompanied, to rediscover a notion of letting go, far from the times. I put at a distance all the bodies of authority and control in sporting practice.”

With four kilos more than in 2015, Maxime Lopes has returned to a normal diet and has a string of record performances. Sophie never really came out of it: “I became aware of my problems, and today, I can eat cakes or ultra-sweet foods again. But by forcing myself, by feeling guilty afterwards, by telling myself that it’s rubbish and that it will harm my performances. I know it’s stupid, but I can’t get past it. »

An awareness of the phenomenon, really?

If myths such as “one kilo less, one minute saved over 10 km” or “you cannot perform above 65 kg” still remain all too present, more and more online content is now warning about the risks of a calorie deficit (eating less than what you expend) that is too large or too prolonged. “We are talking more and more about limiting restrictions, diets, no longer mistreating our bodies and taking care of our mental health,” rejoices Anne-Laure Laratte.

Our file on the marathon

Really a victory? Fabien Ohl qualifies: “Yes, there is more and more content on the dangers of depriving yourself of food, but it is still too often seen through the prism of performance. We are going to say to eat, not to have a serene mind and avoid problems, but to perform well, have enough energy, and avoid injuries. » The road will still be long.

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