Article written by Rachelle Reinking
No matter what sport you compete in, hard work and discipline are essential to your success. You carve time out of your busy schedule for training sessions. You meal prep to ensure you don’t stray from nutritional goals. You check the scale to see how close you are to dropping a weight class and adjust your programming accordingly. Friends and family who are non-athletes might be concerned with this “unhealthy” behavior, even when you can reassure them that what you’re doing is appropriate for your sport.
However, this kind of dedication can become an obsession. Athletes are at-risk for putting themselves into physical and psychological damage, particularly those who compete in sports that focus on appearance, weight requirements, and individual performance. According to a study by the National Eating Disorders Association, over one-third of female Division 1 NCAA athletes exhibited symptoms that aligned closely with anorexia nervosa. So what is normal and what is borderline dangerous? Let’s take a look at the difference between dedication and disorder.
When gearing up for a competition, you adjust your diet to meet a goal. Maybe you’re in a cutting phase for a physique-based competition or to make a weight class. You count your macronutrients, lower your carb intake, and avoid alcohol like the plague. People outside of the lifting community don’t adhere to these strict guidelines, and social settings magnify the differences. Whether it’s cocktail hour with coworkers or a graduation party with sheet cake, people take notice that you aren’t indulging. They prompt you with “Just one bite won’t hurt,” and ask questions about how restrictive your diet is. Sticking to your guns on this is completely acceptable.
However, athletes can take these restrictions too far. Disorders come in more forms than just anorexia and bulimia. Excessive caloric restriction, serial avoidance of specific foods deemed unhealthy, and starvation tactics like juice cleanses for extended amounts of time border disordered eating habits. Orthorexia is a fairly newly coined term for obsessive behavior related to healthy eating. If you experience extreme guilt or anxiety from eating a “bad” food and you’re avoiding social situations altogether in fear of slipping up on your diet, there’s a possibility that you have disordered eating habits.
Another part of competing is making sure your training is in order. You take extraneous activities out of your schedule in favor of lifting sessions, add in some extra cardio here and there, and maxing out on weight in the weeks leading up to competition. You’re kicking into high gear, and at this point, you don’t even have a day off of training. But, your programming is tailored to meet your goal, and with the right discipline, you think may even surpass it.
Training becomes borderline disordered behavior when it negatively affects your health. Some athletes fear missing workouts and believe it to be detrimental to their training if they do. They’ll refuse to miss a session, even when injured. This kind of behavior can lead to overtraining. In female athletes, especially those who are in sports focused on leanness, overtraining can result in the female athlete triad. This syndrome includes low bone mass, amenorrhea (lack of menstrual cycle), and an energy deficiency. Eventually, this can cause stress fractures, severe disordered eating, and infertility. Both men and women can sustain other injuries that could put them out of competing for good if they aren’t careful. In extreme overtraining, some athletes even develop rhabdomyolysis, where muscle tissue begins to die off (Ghoch). When diagnosed with this, doctors prescribe rest and zero physical activity until the body can recover. You need rest in order to not only progress, but also to train safely and protect your health. If training seems to consume your life, even without experiencing some of these physical symptoms, you may have a compulsive exercise disorder.
Being an athlete of any kind takes dedication. But, when that dedication takes a stranglehold on other aspects of your life, it may be time to evaluate whether you are bordering the line of disordered behavior. Your physical and psychological health should always come first.
If you believe you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, please consult a physician to get officially diagnosed and seek treatment. They will be able to provide you with the steps to take control back from the disorder.
“Eating Disorders, Physical Fitness and Sport Performance: A Systematic Review.”
Marwan El Ghoch, Fabio Soave, Simona Calugi, Riccardo Dalle Grave
Nutrients. 2013 December; 5(12): 5140–5160. Published online 2013 December 13.
National Eating Disorders Association. National Eating Disorders Association. n.d. Web. 11 June 2016.