How Ditching Diet Culture Changed My Relationship With Running

Blog Post By: Julia Carter

Medical Disclaimer: Movement and eating disorder recovery is a very delicate subject. Please consult with your physician, therapist, and/or healthcare team to see if you're ready to integrate movement back into your life.

Calling It Quits

In 2019, I quit dieting for good. After almost two decades of paying lip service to diet culture and disordered eating, I threw away my scale, deleted the tracking apps, and found an intuitive eating therapist. I also decided to run my first marathon.

I was no stranger to running. I dabbled with track and cross country through my teenage years, but always quit because I felt too self-conscious to run alongside my peers in my larger, slower body. I was never what anyone would call an athlete growing up. I was slow, uncoordinated, and never excelled in competitive sport settings due to a lack of self-confidence and an early childhood full of bullying and fat shaming. 

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Running as an Expression of Self

After college, I took up running to stave off anxiety as I looked for my first “grown-up” job. I started out walking to music that made me happy. One day, I grew bored with walking and decided to go faster. I liked how it felt, so I kept going. Running felt like an external expression of the energy I felt welling inside of me. It helped soothe my anxiety, get in touch with my body and appreciate its strength and stamina, and it gave me incremental goals to work toward in a time where I felt unmoored and without purpose. Soon enough, I was training for my first half-marathon. I ran my second one the following year, and a third the year after that, and so on. 

I can’t ignore the ways that my eating disorder interplayed in my relationship with running in those years. But even then, it was about so much more than the value that diet culture ascribes to exercise. I gained a sense of community through running. I found a place that felt safe to practice discipline and learn that I could do hard things. I also found access to a kind of stillness; an ability to sit with and work through my thoughts that was unmatched to any meditative practice I’d ever attempted. 

Reclaiming Running from Diet Culture

Even still, when I started pursuing recovery, I knew my relationship with running had to change. While the trappings of a loving and healthy movement practice were present, the pressure to exercise for aesthetic results or weight loss still hung heavy. I wanted to find a way to keep this form of joyful movement that had given me a sense of identity, purpose, relief, and community. The City of Oaks Marathon was a few months away, and a training program with a local running club had a pace group that I would be able to keep up with. After talking with my therapist and coming up with a safety plan, I decided to go for it. (Note: If you're in the process of recovering from an eating disorder or struggling with disordered thoughts, I don’t advise jumping into something as rigorous as marathon training without talking to your doctor or supportive mental health professionals. Given my own specific context and needs, this worked for me. But everyone is different. Honor your journey and your needs.)

My marathon training program was 12 weeks. My training schedule had me running 3-5 days a week, with a rest and an optional cross-training day included. My weekday runs were shorter and often done alone. On early Saturday mornings, I’d wipe the sleep from my eyes, strap on my hydration belt, and make it just in time to the designated meeting spot to run our weekly long-distance run. 12, 14, 16, 18 miles. It was hard. There were days when I felt invincible, in love with the sport and in awe of the things my body could do. Other days were harder: when I struggled with my body image, when I wasn’t moving in the ways I thought I should, or I just didn’t have anything to give. In order to get through training, I had to tap into what my body–and my brain, for that matter–was telling me on a minute-to-minute, day-to-day basis. If I didn’t honor my needs, I would not be able to continue. Giving my body the fuel it needs and the foods that not only fuel me but bring me joy became an utmost priority (double bagel sandwich Saturdays at Benchwarmers became a highly-anticipated weekly tradition).

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Coming Home to Myself

Choosing recovery and a new relationship with running also meant letting go of tightly held notions of perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking. Before every run, I would check in with myself and see how my body and brain were doing. What did I need? If it was rest, I would honor that feeling. I learned that allowing for nuance in my routines and self-care regimen made room for more joyful and sustainable running practices. I suddenly felt safe to slow down. I started incorporating walking intervals into my runs, and I luxuriated in warm-up and cool down routines, regardless of how they impacted my pace. 

On November 3rd 2019, I crossed the City of Oaks finish line in tears–happy ones. Recovery is not a linear process, but I had found a way to show up for myself and hold fast a form of joyful movement I had so feared belonged to the realm of diet culture. But in the end, it still belonged to me. It didn’t matter my pace or distance, running was a practice–my sacred practice–that was mine.

My relationship with running has inevitably continued to evolve. I don’t gravitate toward long-distance running these days. Lately, my body has been asking for shorter runs that support my other obligations and movement goals. As it has and continues to do, it fits itself into the container I am able to pour it into. And this is what I love about running. 

Head over here to read about the fabulous author, Julia Carter.

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