How to Support an Athlete Who May Be Vulnerable to an Eating Disorder

How to Support an Athlete Who May Be Vulnerable to an Eating Disorder

As coaches and friends of endurance athlete, we need to be aware of the ways in which discussions of weight-optimization can trigger eating disorders in vulnerable individuals. Weight loss can lead to improved performance in some athletes in some disciplines, but eating disorders can also wreck performance, so it’s important to understand the triggering mechanisms for eating disorders and to carefully consider how you will discuss body weight with your athletes and friends.

Higher Risks for Athletes in Endurance, Weight Dependent and Aesthetic Sports

A focus on weight loss as the key to athletic achievement triggers body image issues and potentially leads to eating disorders (ED’s) in a large percentage of endurance athletes. Athletes in sports where a high power to weight ratios benefits performance, such as road cycling on hilly courses, are particularly at risk. In the study Risk and Trigger Factors for the Development of Eating Disorders in Female Elite Athletes by Sundgot-Borgen, it was reported that the percentage of those with ED’s were significantly higher in athletes performing in endurance sports (20%), weight dependent sports (29%) and aesthetic sports (35%) as compared to other sports such as as ball game sports (12%) and technical sports (14%) that don’t favor leaner or lighter athletes.

As an elite racer myself, I can’t begin to count the number of times I have both over-heard and been involved in discussions about weight loss as an avenue to improve performance. There is no denying that there is a measurable performance difference that can be achieved through body weight optimization for some in the sport of cycling. However, lighter is not always better, as being underweight robs athletes of power on the bike, as does poorly managed weight loss.

Clearly things must change in order to decrease the excessive amount of body dysmorphia and eating disorders that are a nearly normal occurrence among female endurance athletes.

Recognizing Some of the Issues That Lead to Disordered Eating in Athletes

What can be done to decrease this mental and physical health problem that plagues so many women in cycling? The answer is multifaceted and complex. The study by Sudgot-Borgen includes ten reasons given by athletes as causes for the development of their disordered eating. Thirty percent of eating disordered athletes pointed to a new coach as the cause of the ED, while the highest ranked reason, at 37%, was dieting and weight fluctuations. Coming in third and fourth were injury/illness (23%) and casual comments (19%). Although we cannot control all of the factors contributing to the development of eating disorders, as coaches and supporters of competitive cyclists we can decrease the risk by the manner of our approach.

So, how can your rider achieve athletic fitness and performance without disordered eating? As a coach, I believe that it may be beneficial to put less of a focus on weight loss and more of a focus on strength building correlating to specific strengths of the athlete and guiding athletes to events that suit their current build. Different body types will excel at different cycling events. Someone who is naturally of slimmer build may excel at hill climbs, while those who are more muscular may perform better at criterium or track racing and be less likely to obsess about weight if they are finding success in their sport. Remind your athletes of the amazing things that their bodies allow them to do when they are well-nourished.

As a recovering ED athlete myself, I know that there definitely is no one cure for this problem. You have to get many things “right” to initiate and maintain recovery. A circle of close friends, family and coaches is essential. People who reach out to those who are struggling help start a rider start down the path of recovery. If you see an athlete clearly struggling with an ED or body image issue, reach out to them. This may be a hard conversation to have, but could really have an impact on not only the athlete’s performance in her sport, but on her health and well being. Going to group counseling is beneficial for many. There are plenty of helpful resources for those struggling with ED. ED athletes often feel good about themselves and in control of their disorder one second and then lose faith and feel like a mess the next. When your athlete feels low, remind her (or him) that human bodies vary in size and shape, which is natural and beautiful, and that bodies of various shapes can perform well in sports.

A female athlete raises her arms in victory.

Suggestions to help your athletes to resist, overcome and avoid the triggers of Eating Disorder

  • When weight loss is warranted, set realistic and achievable goals, including a specific target weight and rate of weight loss rather than making “lighter” the goal.
  • Include non-weight goals.
  • Take time every day for self appreciation.
  • Praise yourself.
  • Remember that there are going to be off days, but that does not undo your successes.
  • Talk to friends, teammates and coaches, especially if you are feeling triggered.
  • If someone says something hurtful about your weight, be angry with them, not yourself.
  • Whether or not you are trying to change body composition, prioritize eating for nourishment.

Although there is not one single solution for the problem of ED in athletics, we can raise awareness that there is a problem and help those who are struggling. Let us come together and help the athletes in our lives love and care for their amazing bodies.

Wenzel Coaching Resources:

Paul Page-Hanson – Mental skills specialist (Former psychotherapist)

Taryn Hand, RD, MS, CSSD, LD – Registered Dietitian and athlete nutrition specialist

Leia Tyrrell – Coach Leia Tyrrell has overcome a number of obstacles during her career as an athlete, and she enjoys working with athletes of all ages who may struggle with the physical and mental demands of cycling and triathlon.

Further reading:
Sundgot-Borgen, Jorunn. “Risk and Trigger Factors for the Development of Eating Disorders in Female Elite Athletes.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 26, no. 4, 1994, doi:10.1249/00005768-199404000-00003.

Academy for Eating Disorders: