Friday 28 October 2016

Running helped me cope with my eating disorder

After years battling anxiety and food issues, Hannah Lilly (36) found her way back by giving herself 10 rules to live by. She describes the pivotal role running has played in her journey

Published 20/10/2015 | 02:30

Hannah Lilly: the way I feel about myself and my life has changed forever. Photo: El Keegan
Hannah Lilly: the way I feel about myself and my life has changed forever. Photo: El Keegan

I’ve run through the darkest times and some of the happiest times of my life and every week, I share the gift of running with hundreds of others in my work as a running coach. But for me, the work is about much more than running — it’s about helping people overcome all those fears and doubts that stop us from moving forward.

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It’s about quietening the critical voice in our minds that tells us we can’t, that we’re not good enough. When you overcome that nagging voice in a running environment and begin to believe in yourself, it ripples out and has a positive effect in all areas of life.

I know this because I am living proof. Over the last year or so, running has empowered me to confront my eating disorder, quieten my inner critic and turn my life around.

My critical voice became louder from the age of about eight when I first developed feelings of anxiety — I subconsciously began to try to control these feelings with an obsession with food. That is until this year, when I feel I finally recovered.

I cannot remember a time when everything I ate wasn’t monitored and followed either by guilt for what I considered overeating or a sense of calm and achievement for missing meals.

When I was aged 17, I was brought to a specialist and diagnosed bulimic with anorexic tendencies. I was always on a diet and, in times of stress, I would increase the severity of my diet and the amount of  exercise I was doing.

Brief periods would pass when I would binge and purge if I was at home alone, but I wouldn’t allow myself to see this purging as a problem. I would brush it off, telling myself I was just too full and that I had to get sick. 

For most of my adult life, I recorded my food intake in some way, either writing it down or tracking calories in my head as I went.

This reached maximum intensity when I began training as a bikini competitor for a competition last October. As anyone who is familiar with fitness competitions knows, entering this type of comtest involves intense dieting and exercise — as part of my preparation, I weighed and recorded everything I ate.

I didn’t see anything wrong with it until after the bikini contest, when it was clear to me that it was the ultimate practice in self-punishment for me to try to create and maintain a body that is completely unsustainable.

Not long after the competition, I was out for lunch with a friend and I found myself completely unable to order off a menu as I didn’t know the calorie breakdown.

I took one of the hardest steps ever by  opening up and confessing my fears to my friend and I began trying to recover.

I was part of a running club at the time.

Even though my life was chaotic as I tried to confront my eating disorder, there were four weeks to go in the running season, and I didn’t want to let down my club.

I would drive to the track for each session and sit clenching the wheel, my heart racing, overcoming wave after wave of nausea. I worried that I might faint stepping out of the car, but somehow I managed to get myself out.

Although the running club didn’t solve my problems, every single run helped to lift me and get me out of my own mind. Hearing the other runners talking and seeing the vastness of the sky as we ran reminded me that I wasn’t alone and that there was more to me than my body.

When the club season ended, I became reclusive. My anxiety was relentless and I often wouldn’t get dressed or out of bed.

When I found myself contemplating suicide during the Christmas holidays, I knew I had reached a point where I had to make a choice about my life. This was not the life I wanted and I was not the person I wanted my children, Jessica (10) and Leon (6) to grow up with.

The rules

I had read The Secret months before, and it inspired me to create a six-month experiment with 10 rules that I would follow each day.

The experiment was based completely around the fact that I knew I wasn’t a victim of external circumstances, I knew I had a control over my life, and I knew that if I mastered how to focus on the positive in my thoughts and actions, I could change my life.

These 10 rules were feel-good triggers, as I knew that when we feel good, more good things happen. I began on February 4, and I kept track of my progress on a blog (

Rule number three was essential to my recovery and what I now believe is key to how we feel and the quality of our lives: being kind to ourselves is vital. Rule number six —spending 15 minutes outside each day — came from knowing the positive impact running had made in lessening my anxiety.

I eased myself back to work after Christmas, and it was on a Sunday-morning run that I experienced, for the first time, true gratitude for my life and for the tremendous gift it is simply to be able to run.

In 2013, I had qualified as a personal trainer and left my job working in a pharmacy to become self-employed. I loved motivating people in the classes I held, but it was early last year, after I used a running plan for beginners to teach a client how to run, that the idea of a club for non-runners was born.

I imagined a place that people would feel able to take that first step into fitness and to let go of their fears of being the slowest or most unfit. My focus was on creating and maintaining a non-competitive environment. I would tell everyone to run only for themselves, not to compare themselves to others, and not to look ahead at the next session or think how they couldn’t do it, but to be proud of every single step they had already taken.

There was no failing here — simply arriving on the first day is an enormous step.

As I was still very critical of my appearance and obsessed with what I ate, I didn’t always follow my own advice, but I knew that running helped lower my stress and anxiety levels.

It was a place where I could follow my passion to help people believe in their dreams and start saying I can.

Eighteen months later, and with hundreds of people now having graduated to runner status from my non-runners running group, beaing a part of each person’s journey is amazing and something I will be forever grateful for. Since my experiment, the way I feel about myself and my life has changed forever.. Life is for living and our minds are a powerful thing. We believe what we tell ourselves, and what I love about run club is seeing people create a new truth.

* Read Hannah’s blog at and visit her fitness/run club Facebook page at

Hannah’s 10  feel-good rules

1. Visualise my future and all that I want to achieve until  it feels as if it has already happened.

2. Begin a gratitude list and add to it each day.

3. Be kind to myself. Pay myself a compliment when I look

in the mirror.

4. Begin each day listening to music that I love.

5. Be aware of negativity in my thoughts and conversations. Try to find the positive in all things.

6. Spend at least 15 minutes outside in the fresh air every day.

7. Start a list of things that I love and add to it each day.

8. Be kind to others. Take all opportunities, each day, to show kindness.

9. Giving. Rather than waiting until I have enough, start  donating 10pc of my weekly earnings to charity.

10. Do my best to follow these rules for six months; not  pressure myself to be perfect, and blog honestly.

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