Why Swimmers Get Eating Disorders

Spending this past weekend coaching the state championship swim meet has really inspired me to share my thoughts on the relationship between eating disorders and the sport of swimming.  This post is far from scientific, though eventually I do think I will dive into some research on the subject.  For now I just want to share my thoughts – both as an insider in the depths of ED and as an outsider beginning my recovery.

Did you all know that Rachel Frederickson used to be a swimmer?

I know a lot of people say that ED’s/restrictive eating are not based on the desire to be perfect or to be thin.  Many people say that it was a way to gain control over an aspect of their life when they felt other parts were spinning out of control.  I think we all know that it goes much deeper than the general population realizes.   When it comes to swimming, I think there is a combination of factors at play:

  • Swimmers look for ways to improve when they hit that “plateau.”  Once they’ve decided that they have been doing all the right things in training and at meets, they start to look outside the box.  Could my poor diet be limiting my performance?  Sure.  Sometimes ED’s in swimmers start innocently, simply a way to eat healthier and maximize recovery and performance.  However, they are often severely misguided in the process.  Coaches may have little knowledge on the subject and few swimmers have access to a professional educated in sports nutrition.  Instead, they are exposed to the media and the general “diet and weight loss” trend in our society.  What happens is they fail to realize the massive amount of energy demanded of their sport.  They may start counting calories to realize that they are still starving at the end of a meal.  They may start to deny their hunger, or feel that something is wrong with them to want so much food.  Thus the restricting cycle begins.
  • Swimmers often believe that a lower body fat percentage or leaner physique will give them a performance advantage.  They will limit calories in an effort to reach the desired body composition, which leaves them in an energy-deficient state.  This in turn leads to longer recovery times and increases the risk of injuries.  It is especially troubling in girls due to this risk of bone loss associated with amenorrhea and the female athlete triad.  Athletes fail to acknowledge that their body in unique – that they have a different weight set point and a different ideal body  composition than everyone else.  Trying to control it does little for you in the long run.  Swimming is actually such an interesting sport because it doesn’t really give a huge advantage to one particular body type.  Take a look at some of the fastest swimmers in the world – there is a great deal of variability there!
  • Swimmers are heavily influenced by the team atmosphere.  Being a conditioning sport, swimming demands a tremendous time commitment.  Swimmers spend more time with their teammates than they do with their families, so it is safe to say that they have a great deal of influence on each other.  You often see trends among teams – some where all the girls are thin and muscular, some where everyone is a little chubby.  Swimmers often eat together, so their learned eating behaviors can be a huge factor in the development of an eating disorder.  For instance, everyone on the “chubby” team goes out for a big meal after practice.  One swimmer goes home and feels guilt for all that they had eaten because society has told them that it is “unhealthy.”  So they purge.  Another example –  a freshman with a naturally larger build joins a very “thin” team.  In a desperate attempt to fit in and be part of the team, this person observes the eating behaviors and restricts in much the same fashion.
  • Though I think this is lower on the list than the other 3 points I mentioned, the idea that thin/muscular is attractive can also be a contributing factor.  This is especially true in co-ed teams, where everyone feels the need to be attractive to the opposite sex.  Let’s also throw in the fact that we’re all running around half naked all the time.  You can’t hide your body image issues in swimming – they are out there for the world to see.
  • Coaches.  Most of them don’t realize the power of influence they have.  And sadly, most of them have not had enough experience or education on eating disorders to be able to prevent and respond to them appropriately.  One slip of the tongue, and you could inadvertently lead a swimmer down the path of disordered eating.  The good news is that being a coach also gives you tremendous power in a positive direction!

Well I really had planned to write on much more than just the reasons why it develops, but this is already such a long post!  I think I may make a part 2.  The study of eating disorders is quite fascinating to me, and I really want to learn more.

What do you all think is the main reason why athletes develop eating disorders?


6 thoughts on “Why Swimmers Get Eating Disorders

  1. This is really interesting, thank you for sharing. Would definitely be interested in a part 2 if you have more info! From my experience “honest” coaches can be so damaging for body image self esteem. I don’t swim but have a friend who developed an eating disorder because of the muscular physique she developed from swimming training. Thanks again x

    • Thanks glad you enjoyed it. Swimming was definitely one huge factor in the development of my ED. Part 2 should be up either tomorrow or the next day!

    • I have heard a lot about gymnastics and ED’s… it just sucks that so many sports are focused on body image! It can be really hard as an athlete to not let that stuff get to you.

  2. I was a swimmer for 13 years and developed an ED because I wanted at first to be “healthier” and improve performance… also I was about 15 and was hitting the plateau (helloo puberty!) and wanted to keep up with the other tiny 12 year old distance swimmers in my group. Then, when I found I was faster from being smaller (distance swimmers do benefit from being smaller in my opinion- the lass you have to pull through the water for the 1500, the better!) it became worse because obviously I was competitive and found something that improved my training and performance. Though I don’t necessarily think all swimmers struggle with ED’s I know a lot who have… it’s an easy thing to fall prey to in such a competitive, “revealing” sport.

    • It is really interesting to hear the distance swimmer’s perspective! I was a sprinter (50 free, 100 free) and we all had the idea that lean and muscular was what made you faster (i.e. any amount of body fat would slow you down). Sometimes I would wish that I was a distance swimmer so that I wouldn’t have to worry about body fat… haha shows how much I know! Clearly it can strike anyone. Thanks for sharing your story!

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