World Mental Health Day: Allie Ostrander and the Intersection of Mental Health and Athletics

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Note: This article discusses difficult topics, including eating disorders and eating disorder recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out to the National Eating Disorders Association.

World Mental Health Day serves as a poignant reminder of the silent battles individuals often face, hidden behind smiles and accomplishments. It’s a day to raise awareness and break down stigmas surrounding mental health, and one athlete’s story shines a powerful light on the intersection of mental health and professional running.

Running offers numerous mental health benefits, but it’s undeniable that athletes in the sport, at all levels, grapple with mental health issues. Studies have found that eating disorders are prevalent in ultra runners (32% to 62.5%) and college runners (over one-third). 

Allie Ostrander, a 26-year-old from Alaska, is known not only for her running achievements but also for her openness about her mental health struggles

Ostrander’s mental health struggles became evident in 2021 when she shared an emotional video on her YouTube channel, discussing her eating disorder and current treatment. 

However, her battle began much earlier.

“I realized during my freshman year of high school that the behaviors I was participating in weren’t good for my health. (I had started restricting when I was 11). I was in complete denial,” she admitted.

Despite recognizing the harm in her behaviors, she couldn’t overcome her disordered thoughts. “I didn’t do much to help myself at the time, other than making a conscious effort to restrict a bit less. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I ever pursued professional help, and even then, I was only 20-30% committed to recovery.”

Initially, Allie believed that restricting her food intake and staying as small as possible would enhance her athletic performance. 

Despite strong performances throughout her career, her mental health struggles began to manifest physically. She faced inconsistencies in training as her body was unable to recover and adapt from training and disruptions in training due to continuous bone injuries.

Nevertheless, Ostrander achieved three NCAA titles in college, earning a contract with Brooks Beasts, a professional track team. Yet, her struggles persisted, leading her to enter an intensive treatment program for eating disorders.

While in recovery, Ostrander competed at the Olympic Trials and achieved a personal best. However, she faced a femoral neck stress fracture in July, her fourth bone stress injury in a year. 

This was a turning point for her, prompting her to leave Brooks in pursuit of full recovery.

Realizing the need for change to break the cycle of injuries, Allie approached training with the goal of recovery in mind. She has since found joy in running again, now representing NNormal, a company aligned with her goals.

Allie emphasizes that successful recovery is a long, challenging process filled with discomfort, guilt, and emotional struggles. “Everything gets worse at first, and the trick is dealing with all of that and still continuing to eat and try to question the narrative in your brain.”

Having experienced negative media influences, Allie underscores the media’s role in shaping perceptions of runners’ bodies and fostering unhealthy comparisons. She mentions the direct influence of media when directly commenting on runners’ bodies and the indirect influence by creating a space for comparison.

With her own struggles beginning early in life, Allie stresses the importance of coaches and parents being educated about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, as early intervention is critical for youth athletes.

“It’s super important to know what to watch for because eating disorders are a mental illness, so sometimes they are not visible physically, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t incredibly damaging.”

Allie advocates for a holistic approach to treatment involving a doctor, therapist, and registered dietitian when feasible.

Allie’s journey illuminates the complex connection between mental health and athletic excellence. Her story underscores the prevalence of mental health challenges in sports, especially among runners. Through her resilience and determination, Allie demonstrates that recovery is possible but requires unwavering commitment and compassion from all involved.

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Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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