Being an athlete is a major part of my identity. From a young age, my parents encouraged my athletic development – signing me up for kindergarten soccer, putting me on endless swim teams, pushing me to try out for eigth grade field hockey, and so on. They have instilled in me a love for sports, the environment of a team, and the satisfying burn of pushing myself hard. 

However, I know all too well how devotion to athletics can be a double-edged sword. As I began to transition away from field hockey into distance running in the winter of my sophomore year, I didn't match my increase in exercise with an increase in calories. Because of this, I lost a lot of weight very quickly, and got addicted to the feeling of being smaller. 

Molly Gallagher

I was stuck in my eating disorder through the end of sophomore year until the end of junior year, when I sought help. If you want more information about my eating disorder recovery process, I wrote more about it here. From the other side, there are some things I wished I had known about the process of recovery as an athlete. 

Having gone through this myself and spoken to other athletes and my therapist, I've put together the following list of things that can happen to athletes during eating disorder recovery and explained some methods for dealing with them. 

Your Body Might Be Different Than It Was

Molly Gallagher

That is, if your eating disorder caused you to lose a significant amount of weight. Disordered eating definitely does not always lead to weight loss, but exercise-related disorders (like mine) definitely can. If this isn't your experience, your recovery might still involve changes to your body, and you'll want to talk to your doctor about it so you can prepare for it.

If your eating disorder recovery involves gaining weight, your body will change not only the way it looks, but also how it functions. During recovery, your body will go through a period of adjusting to eating enough again. Your digestive system likely shrunk in response to under-eating, and will need to re-boot to handle increased intake, as will your metabolism.

This can be really uncomfortable, and a little disconcerting, especially in the context of trying to push your body. It can be hard to feel like you're performing well when you also feel bloated and full. However, this phase will pass, and exercise will help you feel better through the process.

If you're a runner like me, having more weight to carry makes running physically more difficult to do. For some amount of time, you might be slower than you were when you weighed less for a little while.

Here's the thing about that: Your body has a greater potential for athletic performance in the future once you reach a healthy weight. If you continue down a path of losing weight to an unhealthy extent, you'll continue down a path towards career-ending injury and hospitalization.

If you're female, at some point, your lack of body fat will cause you to lose your period. I'll save you the full scientific explanation, but this will reduce your calcium levels and weaken your bones, putting you at a greater risk for bone fracture and other injury.

Additionally, not eating enough will lead to malnutrition, which can lead to other health problems and a general lack of energy. Fatigue and malnutrition both detract from your athletic performance.

While being a healthy weight might briefly stunt your athletic ability, your training will lead you down a path of improvement. You'll be less likely to get injured, have the energy to continue playing well, and have the nutrients necessary to build the strength you need to keep becoming a better athlete.

Your Recovery Goals Might Seem Counterintuitive To Your Fitness Goals

Molly Gallagher

Especially in women's sports, there's this persistent mentality that skinnier = faster/better at sports. Many elite athletes have lean, almost skeletal physiques, and it can be tempting to assume that you need to look like they do to perform at their level.

However, this isn't the case. Different sports have different "ideal" body types, but there are always athletes that don't fit the mold and break records nonetheless. Additionally, losing weight on its own does not guarantee anything about athletic performance – only your dedication to improvement through training and practice can do that. 

During eating disorder recovery, you'll be told that you need to take it easy, let your body heal, and be more flexible in your routine. This means trying to escape the mindset of "always trying to 'improve' yourself" through extra exercise and extreme diet restriction. Since your disordered eating might stem from trying to be the best athlete possible, this can feel counterintuitive. 

You'll have to face your fear foods, and feel like you're throwing away your fitness with every bite. While everyone else is "on that grind," you'll have to step on the brakes, which can be terrifying to do. It'll seem like you're regressing while your teammates are getting better.

Reality check – the best athlete you can be is a happy, healthy, and dedicated one. You can't continue to improve if you don't take care of yourself first. 

Your Motivation Might Change

Molly Gallagher

As I've discussed, your disordered eating and your sport could be related to each other. In that case, a lot of your motivation to continue pushing yourself at practice or in competition could come from your desire to burn calories and lose weight.

Through the course of your recovery, you will lose that drive to constantly be dropping weight, which can take away part of your motivation to work hard in the context of your sport. This is really tough to deal with, because it compounds your feeling that eating disorder recovery is antithetical to your progress as an athlete.

The problem with that logic is that your drive to succeed in sports should not be rooted in weight loss. You should want to be an athlete because you love the sport and want to support your teammates, not just because you want to burn calories.

Finding a true passion for your sport is one of the most rewarding parts of eating disorder recovery. To do this, you can try to shift your focus towards being as supportive as possible when your teammates need it the most, or think about why you started playing in the first place. Talk to your teammates about why they love it, and know that you can get there, too.

Changing the source of your motivation does not mean that you will be permanently less driven or that you have to give up a sport that is a huge part of your identity. Quite the contrary – it forces you to find a genuine, sustainable love for your sport which will keep you dedicated to it in the long run.

Your Workouts Might Feel Harder

Molly Gallagher

Given the changes to your body and your motivation, you might struggle in workouts that seemed manageable before. Beyond what I've already described, eating disorder recovery is an exhausting process that requires a lot of your mental energy. During practice, you might feel the effects of that exhaustion in your performance. 

It can be really difficult to push yourself physically and get into the workout when you've spent the day fighting the voice of your eating disorder telling you to relapse. Being strong in the face of self-doubt is a workout in itself.

Making it through your workouts at all will help boost your confidence – use it as an example of your ability to push through setbacks and get it done anyway. If you can continue to work hard despite your mental exhaustion, you can make it through your recovery.

That said, don't feel like you need to work harder to compensate for your workouts feeling more challenging. It doesn't mean that you're a worse athlete or a failure, but that you have more going on and you need to treat yourself with kindness. If taking a step back is what you need to recover, that is absolutely what you should do.

It'll Feel Like Everyone Thinks You're Slacking Off

Molly Gallagher

If you're like me, part of the fuel for your eating disorder is feeling like everyone thinks you're fat or not working hard enough. Therefore, gaining weight and taking a step back at practice made it feel like everyone thought I was giving up.

Here's the truth: Most people don't notice your weight gain or performance changes, and if they do, they don't think worse of you for it. I've asked teammates about this, and all of them have expressed either that they wouldn't have considered it if I hadn't brought it up or that they had noticed and were so glad to see me getting healthier.

It is so important to keep in mind that your judgement of yourself is so much more intense than anyone else's judgement of you. Most people are too focused on their own issues and what you think of them to also be judging you.

Also, anyone who would think poorly of you for working to improve your physical and mental health is not someone whose opinion you should value. They clearly don't have your best interests at heart, and don't really care about you as a person. If anyone does try to hate on your progress, work with your doctor to move past their toxic comments.

You'll Never Truly "Make It Out" 

Molly Gallagher

You're never fully free from disordered eating. The thoughts that pulled you into it in the first place never permanently go away. Especially if your sport can trigger your disordered behavior, it will remain a part of your life forever.

This isn't as pessimistic as it may seem. There are many things about us that we can't change – eye color, height, predisposition for liking cilantro, etc. – that we don't see as impediments to our success, but as part of what makes us who we are. An eating disorder is something you need to accept as part of you, but not something that has to define you. 

Something I've heard a lot throughout my athletic career is "only focus on the things you can control," which I once interpreted as fuel for my restriction and over-exercising. I now see it as fuel for my eating disorder recovery – my disordered thoughts will always be there, but I can control whether I indulge or ignore them.

Your Recovery Will Make You A Stronger Athlete

Molly Gallagher

As athletes, we are constantly working towards becoming the best athlete and teammate we can possibly be. Our dedication can lead us to illness, but it can also lead us back to health again. Eating disorder recovery can strain your relationship with the sport you love, but it can also strengthen it in ways you never thought it would.

Through my recovery, I have become a much more supportive teammate. I have not only made long drives to cheer on my team but I've also been there for my teammates going through similar struggles. I can tell if girls on my team are exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, and am not afraid to initiate tough conversations and offer my support. 

I know myself so much better now – how to tell what my body needs, and how to give it the love it deserves. I also know how to identify irrational thoughts about food or exercise and dismiss them as such before they can hurt me.

Just like I am never done growing as an athlete, I will never be done with eating disorder recovery. The two go together in so many ways, to make you the strongest, most self-aware, and happiest you you can be. 

None of this is easy, but I promise it's worth it.