Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Researching the mental health & eating habits of endurance runners

As well as blogging on Sport Psychology and coaching, I spend my time working to help athletes. Fundamentally, I try to look at the whole athlete and ask how they want to be psychologically in order to be happy and work with them to remove any obstacles in their path to better performance. For some it may be a small thing about how they think in races, maybe how they get on with their coach or they may have a mental blocker that is somehow holding them back.

In our work, Sport Psychologists can also come across more serious conditions that impact on the mental health and well being of athletes both in terms of performance and also as people. As well as helping athletes I do research at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) where I work with Dr Vaithehy Shanmugam, a specialist in Eating Disorders who is now also researching the precursors of ahtlete well being and depression in athletes.

The project work we are doing currently is exploring the amount (or prevalence) of both eating disordered and depressive symptoms that exist within a large representative group of endurance athletes and a similarly sized comparison group of members of the general public. This doesn't mean identifying solely individuals who have clinically diagnosed depression or an eating disorder, but trying to identify amongst large populations of each group where individuals *may* be experiencing some of the symptoms of these conditions as well. Whether or not you are a runner, exercise at the gym, take classes, yoga, any kind of exercise in fact, or do no exercise at all, I'd really appreciate if after you've read this piece and are based in the UK, that you go to and take the survey that applies to you.

The majority of previous research in eating habits within sport has focused mainly on small groups of elite female athletes. The findings have shown that endurance athletes tend to exhibit greater levels of eating disordered symptoms than the same amount of people from the general public. This study differs in that it is comparing a large sample of both male and female endurance athletes of all abilities against a control group of non-athletes. Whilst clinical research has shown depression is the most commonly co-existing mental illness with eating disorders in both men and women, other research has shown that running can have a positive effect on depression. I'm really interested in establishing what the true picture in the United Kingdom is. Whenever I speak to runners about mental health, anecdotally, a lot of them state that the activity helps them feel positive. However, the research from (non-running) people suffering from eating disorders (or eating disorder symptoms) finds high levels of depression/depression symptoms jointly occurring.

The reason for including a sample of people from the general population (whether they do up to the Government recommended 5 hours of exercise a week or not), is to see if runners have greater levels of these conditions or less than normal, which will help be able to confirm or contradict previous findings.

As a runner, I understand the levels of commitment required to train for races. At the peak of marathon training, it is not unusual to have to fit in up to 10 hours a week of running, swimming, yoga, cycling or gym work. As the body needs to receive more fuel to power this level of activity on top of every day requirements and runners may also want to stay lean to be able to run quicker, it can push individuals to eating habits that would otherwise be classified as at risk in 'normal life'.

Fortunately, I don't think I've ever got to a point where I have been close to displaying eating disorder like (or eating disorder specific) symptoms, though some people have commented on how lean I may look compared to normal.  Some people being naturally lean will obviously look even thinner, though that doesn't in itself count as a diagnosis for eating disorders or any other mental health issues.

Given how positive an impact running has had on my life, and those who I know in my community, I feel I'm in a lucky position to be able to try and help in our understanding and influence help that may be useful to those who are at risk or may not know that they are close to developing some of the symptoms of what are very serious conditions. Since putting my survey live ( and gathering responses from both runners and the public, I have had very positive feedback from people who may have been touched by either eating disorders or other mental health issues. Though I can't extrapolate scientifically or put an exact figure on it, there are runners you know who you won't know have been through some very serious psychological conditions and are on a daily basis fighting their personal battle whilst outwardly appearing a smiley, lycra clad-running buddy.

I know there are a lot more people joining the running community every year, which is fantastic to see from a health point of view, new races that pop up and friendships forged over a simple activity that we have done as a species for a very long time and for which we are well built to do. What I want you to take home is that eating disorders and mental health are still stigmatised in this country but are probably a lot closer than you realise within your running circles. Another reason for doing this research is to be able to quantify that and not scare monger. Thankfully the numbers of at risk cases is not at epidemic proportions, but mental health issues are still very serious and upsetting for those experiencing them. I hope my research can help any runners and the public out there who may be having a difficult time and shine a light on how they can get stay fit and healthy both physically and mentally.

Details of the study:
I am a PhD student at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) investigating the prevalence (or amount) of depressive or eating disorder symptoms and their co-morbidity amongst runners and recreational exercisers. I am collecting data via an online questionnaire. There is a separate questionnaire for runners and for non-runners:

As long as you are:
  • Over 16 years of age
  • Living in the United Kingdom
  • Not currently injured or pregnant
  • Not receiving medical or mental health treatment can take part in this research!

HAVE YOU: participated in any organised UK recreational or competitive race from 800 metre to Ultramarathon distance on track or road since August 15th 2012, or are a University 1st to 3rd team athlete? If so, then please complete this survey:

Runners questionnaire:

If you do NOT participate in any other kind of organised sport, or running races and don't exercise any more than 5 hours a week in any activity, then please complete this survey:

Non-runner questionnaire:

Individuals who participate in the study will be asked to complete an online survey and be given the opportunity for support if required. Anonymity is ensured and express consent will be required. Although individuals are required to complete their name at the beginning of the survey, the data provided will not be identifiable to them. Those who do take part are free to withdraw from the study at any time up until the questionnaires have been returned (after which they can not withdraw) and no reason is required.

Full details and eligibility criteria for runners and non-runners can be found at With regard to people who have suffered from an eating disorder, eating disorder symptoms or any other clinical health issue, they are eligible to participate providing they are not in treatment. The survey will run from September 2013 to March 2014 and should take between 10 and 15 minutes to complete.

All your answers will be anonymous, but would significantly help us to improve our understanding of an under-researched topic in order to better devise effective interventions. The research is carried out as part of a Doctorate Programme at (UCLan) and it has received ethical approval from the University, and has the backing of UK Athletics and the British Milers Club. If you would like to ask more questions about the research, please contact me via: sholliday3 at

1 comment:

Rebs said...

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