COLUMBIA, Mo. (WOMENSENEWS)–Pam Hinton sits quietly at her desk in the University of Missouri’s Department of Nutritional Sciences building, where she is researching the problem of eating disorders among female athletes, specifically runners.
It’s a problem that Hinton understands intimately; having herself suffered anorexia and the loss of her menstrual period during the late 1980s, when she was a cross-country runner as an undergraduate attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
Hinton told Women’s eNews that her coach held weigh-ins where each runner’s body fat was measured in the locker room, while the rest of the team waited their turn. Amid subtle competition about who could have the lowest body-fat percentage, Hinton decided one summer to see how good she could be.
She dropped 10 pounds. At the first training run of the season, she said she was able to keep up with all the top athletes, including Suzy Favor, who became a three-time Olympian. She continued to drop weight and run faster, going from around 125 pounds to 98 by the next summer. She had 7 percent body fat and had stopped having her period.
"That kind of scared me," Hinton said.
The next fall, before Hinton’s senior cross-country season, the team doctor told her she couldn’t keep losing weight and training with the team, so Hinton chose to forgo her final year of athletic eligibility.
All she had left was an eating disorder that haunted her for more than five years, even after she was hired as an assistant professor of nutritional sciences and dietetics at Missouri in 2000.
In the end, she says it was only after a car accident ended her ability to run and see herself as a runner that that her eating disorder finally faded away.
"I never thought about it that way before," she said. "But maybe I did need to stop running to finally beat it."
Linked to Osteoporosis
Today Hinton bikes for fitness and has quit running altogether, but suffers from osteoporosis. She suspects the condition was caused by her eating disorder, which caused her to lose her menstrual period and could have restricted her supply of nutrients critical to maintaining bone density.
Hinton, who researches eating disorders in runners, says bone density is almost always lower among underweight female runners. Pages of statistics, she says, document further health risks to participants in women’s cross-country, which has the highest incidence of eating disorders, followed by women’s gymnastics, women’s swimming, and women’s track and field events, according to a 2005 study by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
In the past, eating disorders were more common in gymnastics than in cross-country. But as the popularity and intensity of competition in cross-country has increased, so has the proportion of athletes with eating disorders.
Hinton speaks each year at the University of Missouri’s youth cross-country camps for local students in grades 6-12, telling them it’s not worth it to be faster and too skinny.
But she says each year she has high school girls tell her, "I haven’t had my period in months and my family doctor says it’s normal."
The warnings about excessive weight loss is hard for runners to take as seriously as their need for speed, agrees Kim Moore, a Division I distance runner four years ago.
Today Moore, a college graduate, continues to run every day and to compete in locally organized races, saying she is addicted to the sport.
She recently moved to Arizona from Missouri with a group of runner friends so they could have a year-round climate for running. She has gotten faster since college and hasn’t backed off on her training whatsoever.
"It’s about being fast," Moore said, "because weight, for a lot of people, is a big part of it. Even if your coaches aren’t making that an issue, all you have to do is look around and notice that basically 99 percent of the girls who are fast are thinner than the average college-age girl."
Impacts of Distance Running
The effects of distance running on the female body are evident in Moore and her friends. She said many of the young women who run with her suffer from amenorrhea, or the loss of menstruation, which can, over a sustained period of time decrease bone density and cause the early onset of osteoporosis.
The quick fix among today’s athletes, Moore says, is to take birth control pills to jump-start a period.
Since no research has been done of the effects of giving estrogen to such young women, Hinton worries about the trend and the fact that therapy for young women with amenorrhea is based on treatment of post-menopausal women with low bone density.
Rick McGuire is the head of sports psychology for USA Track and Field, a national governing body for track and field and cross-country on all levels, from youth to Olympic to professional, based in Indianapolis. Many cross-country runners are also track athletes in distance events.
McGuire says coaches need to break out of the mind-set of athletic success at any cost, in order to teach distance runners that their health isn’t worth sacrificing.
"In women’s cross country, the ones who sacrifice more, some of them end up in first place," said McGuire. "Some of them end up in the hospital . . . You’ve got to explode the myth of that sports cliche, ‘You’ve got to be willing to pay the price.’ We’ve got to start teaching that that’s wrong. We’re not going to pay the price of our health."
Angela Busch is a freelance sports reporter based in Overland Park, Kan. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked as a sports reporter for the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, Minneapolis Star Tribune and Kansas City Star.
For more information:
Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc.: