Inspirational Runner: Rachael Steil
Numbers. They are something we begin learning about and using from a very young age. And if you happen to grow up and become a runner, numbers become an even more important of your daily life.
Pace. Finish Times. Lap Times. Weight.
Rachael Steil is an accomplished competitive runner, cross country coach, and author of Running in Silence, a book that chronicles her battle with and ability to overcome disordered eating and how it was fueled by her desire to be a successful runner.
Rachael became a runner at a young age. “My mom had been running all her life, so I grew up watching her run.”
Then after placing 2nd in a field day running competition in kindergarten, Steil new she was a natural competitor. Shortly thereafter, her mom created a kid-friendly running schedule for her so she could safely get into the sport of running. Although Steil was in love with running, there was a point when that love became an obsession – and an unhealthy one at that.
“Running is healthy,” says Steil, “but when it starts to become an obsession and it takes over your life in a negative way, that’s when the sport becomes negative.”
She reminds all runners that running should be something that they look forward to doing. “It shouldn’t be a punishment for anything, like something you ate,” Steil says. This, she said, is a sign that running has began to have a negative impact on a runner’s life. “Many runners naturally have Type A personalities and are perfectionists, so obsession and control come along easy with this type of personality.”
Disordered eating is one way that runners’ exhibit control over their attempt to be perfect in both weight and performance, but a runner suffering from this condition isn’t always so easy to pick out.
“Most runners that are dealing with disordered eating are actually at a normal or acceptable body weight,” points out Steil. “We are so used to seeing the worst case scenario involving skin and bones and people hooked up to IVs that it is easy to not see the people at normal-looking weights that are struggling with disordered eating.”
According to Steil, the key is to remember that, “Eating disorders are not an appearance.” Coaches often look for the physical component, which is only on the surface. Disordered eating is really about obsession, anxiety, and depression, or all three. “It’s not talked enough about in the running community,” she notes.
As a coach herself, she makes sure that her cross country team is introduced to the topic of disordered eating before the season even begins. Disordered eating is a topic addressed at the beginning of the cross country training camp that Steil’s team holds each year. The coaches discuss the signs of disordered eating so that the team’s awareness of the issue is increased.
More importantly, Steil and the other coaches make it clear that it is safe for their athletes to talk to them about issues with disordered eating, obsession, anxiety, or depression. “I would have liked to know more about the topic growing up,” says Steil.
She believes that discussing disordered eating with athletes, especially runners, should be a requirement for all coaches. She also recognizes that some coaches might not feel like they are an authority on the subject and may not know how to increase their team’s awareness of the subject. “It’s OK to not be comfortable with the topic, but it is the coach’s responsibility to get someone who is to talk about it with the team.”
For coaches that are curious about how to create a safe atmosphere within their teams to discuss disordered eating, Steil recommends taking a more holistic approach to coaching, rather than just focusing on the numbers and end results. “The focus should be on team success,” she says, “and not just the the fastest runners.” She believes in highlighting good sportsmanship and teammates that encourage each other along with those that increase their PRs or win a race. “We all value praise,” says Steil, “but it doesn’t always have to be about the numbers.” Approaching the athlete as a whole creates a an healthier mental and emotional environment for runners. In turn, they will improve physically and as competitors.
Her experience as a runner suffering from disordered eating is what pushes her to increase awareness of the topic, not just with her athletes, but in the running community as a whole, and even beyond. Her book, Running in Silence, has received an overwhelmingly positive response for its honest portrayal of “invisible” disordered eating. “The response,” says Steil, “has also been heartbreaking.” She receives emails, calls, and blog comments from runners and athletes that have been suffering in silence, and this has really opened the eyes of many people as to how big of a problem disordered eating among runners truly is.
“Runners work so hard to push against what our bodies tell us,” Steil says. The biggest lesson she learned from her ordeal with disordered eating is that when she stopped paying such close attention to the numbers, she was much happier with her performance.
If you are worried that you or a runner close to you is dealing with disordered eating, obsession, or another running-related mental health issue, examine your (or their) daily routine. “The question to ask is ‘Am I happy?’ If you aren’t, and if running feels negative or like a punishment, it may be time to seek help,” says Steil.
Steil recommends telling someone close to you about what you are feeling, but to also be prepared for that person to not be receptive to your struggle, especially if you appear to be at a normal weight. If that is the case, she says to make sure you have a list of people that you can trust and talk to, until you find someone that will listen.
“You need to learn when to push and when to stop,” says Steil, “ and be open to talking and addressing the disorder.” Through awareness and communication, Steil will surely make a positive impact on the health of athletes in the running community.