Running on empty

Why tearing my ACL probably saved my life

This article contains mention of weight loss, exercise addiction, restrictive and disordered eating, and calorie counting.

When you grow up unathletic and on the “bigger” side, people are at first surprised if you completely change your lifestyle. “How do you do it?” they ask wistfully; “Teach me how to be so healthy”, yet it’s ironic how easily my “positive” lifestyle change took an unfortunate negative turn. In school, I found it very difficult as I was lazy and never particularly sporty, something which had been joked about by my family members for years, affecting my self confidence and ability to run from a young age. I always found running quite a struggle and once walked my school’s Cross Country course in protest because I was too ashamed to run at all, since I had always felt sluggish and awkward when trying.

When I started university, I went out, I drank, I socialised, as all students do and as a result, my already limited exercise regime took a back seat and I stopped doing physical activity completely. Then, after my first year I decided I should turn this around and I began to exercise consistently, eat healthily and approach my lifestyle in a different way; including more fruit and vegetables in my diet. To begin with, everything went perfectly and my fitness improved, no one was more surprised than me when I went on longer runs and found that I actually started to enjoy them and want to do them more! Finally I felt healthy, like a proper runner, and I absolutely loved it. But this wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to look fit, not just be fit.

As my new exercise developed, my reasons for improving my lifestyle began to warp and change. I found that I was restricting and punishing myself as I believed that losing weight would improve my confidence issues. Running became a task, in that I was no longer running because I could or because I enjoyed it, I was running with a drive; I had to run. I felt I had to run to offset any “mistakes” in my lifestyle that I perceived as bad such as drinking or not going to the gym, I even felt I had to run to punish myself for eating. I finally could run so I felt I had to continue, I just had to keep losing weight.

“Although I should have been having a great time on holiday, my mind began obsessing over my body.”

It was the summer of second year when I went on a sun holiday with my friends that the already drought relationship I had with exercise and food began to take a turn for the worse. My friend praised me for having a six pack and to them I appeared to be a fitspo. Someone who looked and felt amazing, the “sporty one” as they began to call me. Unfortunately, although I should have been having a great time on holiday, my mind began obsessing over my body. The inability to exercise and the heavy drinking on the trip began to unnerve me and I was convinced that all the progress I had made so far would be ruined and I would end up back where I started. I obsessed over my six pack and was ashamed. I had to hide my restrictive behaviour from my friends and as a result I’ll always find these memories are tainted.

I also had the opportunity to volunteer in China which I was so excited for, but I hadn’t taken into account the negative spiral I had entered in relation to food and I ended up living in a depressive panic. I was determined to exercise when I could, running being the only option, and when I could no longer do this, I resolved to eat less and less. Looking back, it’s heartbreaking that, for someone who always identified as a foodie, I was trapped by fear of weight gain when I could have been experiencing the incredible and unique cuisines that can be found in China.

“I started to get weaker and weaker as I ran on an empty stomach and empty body. It was toxic and dangerous: I was often running with my eyes closed because I was so tired.”

I wore down my body and, as I returned to university, I was the thinnest I’d ever been. I thought I needed to stay at this weight, to remain “athletic”, so I started running again and restricting my eating, in order to mitigate my fears. I started to get weaker and weaker as I ran on an empty stomach and empty body. It was toxic and dangerous. I was often running with my eyes closed because I was so tired. I was running just to look at the “burnt” number, and lost track of normality – sometimes thinking that 90 minutes was not enough exercise. In photos from that term, I look like I’m having a fabulous time, but those were dark days, ridden with physical and mental pain. I was determined to always present myself as strong and invulnerable. Meanwhile I was cracking into infinitely smaller pieces. I find that I can sometimes romanticise my appearance then, yet I was so miserable. In hindsight, it was only a matter of time before I snapped.

And I did.

That Christmas I went skiing, and previous anxieties resurfaced: how could I possibly survive six days of drinking and eating, without exercising? Now, my worries sound ridiculous, but at the time they were crippling. On the first day I took many tumbles and one proved decisive: my knee swelled up and the next day came a diagnosis of torn ligaments. Two days later I headed home; holiday over, and physical activity out of the question. I’m a bad skier but I think in hindsight, had my body not already been breaking, my knee injury might not have been as bad. Injury meant I had to stop. And I was terrified. Terrified of the weight gain I had been so badly trying to avoid. I was also heartbroken. Heartbroken because for the first time in my life I “liked” exercising, and when would this happen again? The answer: a month of complete rest and healing and further weeks of caring for myself instead of pushing my body beyond its limits.

When lockdown came and gyms closed, I empathised with people’s fears about not being able to exercise, having felt this anxiety in December. This time I knew I would survive it. I knew nothing “bad” would happen if I was more sedentary and I no longer wanted to restrict my eating. I still wasn’t running from fear of re-injuring my knee. I gained weight, but when I began to run again in August, I felt amazing. Over-exercising or being smaller didn’t make me a better runner. Rest did. I’m not claiming that every run since then has been easy – but I’m trying to listen to myself. I’m not looking at the size of my legs but at the fact that despite my injury, they can walk and run.

“Running currently allows me to be all the things I wasn’t when I wasn’t eating properly. It makes me feel strong and energetic.”

I don’t force myself to run when I don’t want to, and I don’t run only to burn calories. I eat to fuel myself and have energy. I’m not saying my relationship with food and exercise is completely normal or healed; I frequently struggle with bad body image days and hostile thoughts, and have to ensure I don’t return to toxic habits. But usually I win these fights. I’m trying to care less about my image, and instead focus on moving my body in ways that make it feel good and energised. Running currently allows me to be all the things I wasn’t when I wasn’t eating properly. It makes me feel strong and energetic. It wakes me up and makes me feel alive. I love being able to dance and jump and not feel like I’m going to pass out. I love that I choose to run and don’t feel forced to.

To this day I don’t know what would have happened or how I would have carried on if I hadn’t injured myself skiing: having to look after myself physically meant a mental check-in too.

I could say more, but I am writing mostly for people pushing themselves past breaking point. Pushing themselves to look or act a certain way. Those who seem happiest or hyper-functional, but are destroying themselves on the inside. I want to say that your appearance won’t matter if you constantly hate yourself. I thought becoming “physically fit” and changing my shape would get me what I wanted. I was wrong. Having “abs” didn’t make me happy, it drained me. I wanted to show how quickly a healthy lifestyle can escalate in a very unhealthy way and just how deeply the mental scars of this can run.

While I feel so blessed that I can run and enjoy it during this lockdown, I want to emphasise that rest is good. You will survive not exercising, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t. Ask for help if you’re struggling – I’m still working on this too – don’t let injury be a last resort like I did. Weight gain is not bad. Bodies need rest, and we need to be kind to ourselves.