On Thursday, November 7 Mary Cain’s New York Times story started a conversation about a pervasive culture in running–a culture that has persisted for years and that needs to be changed. Cain’s story is a particularly difficult pill to swallow for running fans and members of the sport because of the underlying theme of her narrative: that thinner means faster.
Fortunately, I believe the more devastating elements of Cain’s story, including her self-harm and suicidal thoughts resulting from her coach’s relentless focus on her weight, are not experienced by most runners. But the ethos that got her there is one that almost all runners are aware of and have experienced on some level. I’m referring to the culture of disordered eating and weight loss in the pursuit of becoming faster.
I’ve been involved in track and field for over ten years. I remember my parents bringing me to my first race the summer before I entered grade nine. I won–and that’s when I started to love the sport. Running is really simple, and that’s one of the things that has always attracted me to it. In my case, it’s two laps around an oval as fast as you can run. But over the past few months it has become clear that when you scratch the surface, running is more complicated. It is now obvious that running has some big problems.
Raising the standard
I consider myself lucky. I’ve only ever had coaches who were supportive, kind, responsible and professional. I’ve never felt outside pressure to lose weight, compete when injured, or do anything for a coach that jeopardizes my emotional or physical safety. It’s unfortunate that I have to say I consider myself lucky–what I’ve experienced shouldn’t be exceptional. It should be the standard.
Despite my solid support network, I’ve struggled with my weight, my body image and my confidence at times. As a varsity runner, eager to achieve, I found myself wanting to do everything possible to get better. In my mind, and in the mind of many runners, this includes losing weight.
When I was 19, I committed myself to a strict diet for about six months, one that excluded foods like chocolate and pasta. My list of ‘bad’ foods included carb-heavy, sugary foods that would make me gain weight, and therefore (so I thought) make me slow. As I continued with this diet I got thinner and faster. But I didn’t get away with this for long. Despite having what would be the best cross-country season of my life, my support network intervened. Instead of reinforcing my actions, the people around me noticed a change, and were quick to help me correct it. Had I not had such vigilant supporters, my story could have ended quite differently. I have never had a better cross-country season than that fall, but since reconsidering my relationship with food I have improved enormously on the track, which is where my big goals still are.
A lot of runners don’t have people around them who see them as a whole person. Like Cain, they have parents, coaches and support staff who are seeing only their performances.
When girls and women drop weight beyond what their body needs to fuel their training and racing, they’re at risk of losing their period and compromising their bone health, which leads directly to stress fractures–something Mary Cain experienced five times. Had I only been seen for my performances four years ago, I likely would’ve ended up with a string of injuries, and become discouraged to the point of deciding to pursue something other than running. Thankfully, I’m still running today.
Where to go from here
Dylan Wykes is a co-founder of Mile2Marathon, one of Canada’s largest coaching companies. He’s also an Olympian and one of the country’s best-ever marathoners. Wykes has seen both sides of the coin, with experience both coaching runners and as an elite runner himself, competing at the highest level of sport. He’s reflected a lot in the days since Cain’s story came out, and he plans to make changes in his own coaching going forward. “During my time as an elite marathoner, I recognized if I was bit a lighter I was also a bit faster. But it was a slippery slope. There’s a big difference between optimal race weight and optimal training weight, and I was trying to maintain this race weight all year round. This makes you fragile. I had a lot of sickness and stress fractures, and that led to a few years of inconsistency. It’s a hard thing to get over once you’ve fixated onto a number on the scale.”
Wykes believes that creating a support network for athletes is part of a coach’s responsibility and that coaches shouldn’t underestimate their influence on a runner. “Especially when working with young women and men, a coach needs to consider how much of their role is about performance versus supporting the growth of a human being. That’s what we as coaches and as a sport need to address. Is our role to get people to run as fast as they can, or is it more than that? How can we contribute more to a young runner’s life?”
Eric Gillis is the head coach at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish and an Olympian over the marathon distance. Gillis speaks to Wykes’ point, and says that when he started coaching at the university level he realized he could do more harm than good in the short time he has to coach young runners. “I only have these varsity athletes for four short years. In that time, they have a lot going on. I could do more wrong than right if I’m not careful.”
The coach also says that he holds himself accountable when it comes to listening to the athletes and mediating the culture on his team. “I had a year where the scale meant too much. It wasn’t me trying to lose weight, it was me trying to control things. I know that feeling well, and I know it doesn’t lead to better performance. One little notion can easily turn into something bigger. I try and listen for red flags in conversations.”
What can coaches do?
Like Gillis and Wykes, many coaches are looking for ways they can do better for their runners. A 2014 study from the Journal of Medicine and Science suggests that one way to discourage disordered eating is spending time fostering good relationships with athletes. The study found, “athletes who describe a poor quality relationship with their coach, characterized by high levels of conflict and low levels of support, report higher levels of eating psychopathology than those who describe a good relationship.”
Jennifer Sygo is a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist who works with Athletics Canada, among other sporting organizations. She says that across endurance sport there’s a 30 to 50 per cent rate of signs and symptoms of RED-S in athletes. “These are things like menstrual disruptions, disordered thoughts and stress fractures. This all exists in non-endurance sport as well, but it’s certainly more common in sports like distance running.”
Sygo mentions that there’s been a lot of improvement with regard to athlete resources over the past few years, but that there’s still a long way to go. “Not all Canadian universities have a dedicated dietician on staff. I still see runners in my practice who were referred to me by a sports medicine doctor because their school didn’t have these resources.”
Her advice to coaches is two-fold: one, that talking about an athlete’s menstrual cycle shouldn’t be taboo. And two, that a coach shouldn’t be responsible for every level of an athlete’s care, but they are responsible for providing them with the tools to keep them healthy.