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I Was Experiencing Mental Fog & Low Energy For Years — Then I Discovered Why

Keely Henniger
May 28, 2023
Keely Henniger
Invisible Illness Contributor
Keely Henniger in nature with colorful border
Image by mbg creative // Keely Henniger
May 28, 2023
While some health issues are visible to the outside world, many people face chronic conditions that don't have externally visible signs or symptoms—also known as invisible illnesses. In mindbodygreen's series, we're giving individuals with invisible illnesses a platform to share their personal experiences. Our hope is their stories will shed light on these conditions and offer solidarity to others facing similar situations.

I was an athlete for most of my life. Then in college, I took to running as a way to relieve some stress. However, I slowly found myself getting obsessive about the sport, in a way that was no longer healthy. Looking back, I used it as an outlet to control what I couldn't control, and that mindset snowballed. I was damaging my body in ways that would take me years to fully realize.

My toxic introduction to the running world

After starting college in 2010, the first group I interacted with was the cross country team. While the camaraderie was positive at first, there was a lot of toxic culture around food and body image. In fact, I remember the upperclassmen really emphasized the necessity of losing your period, and running so hard that it was inevitable. Having no other role models in the sport, I took to that goal, and made it one of my own moving forward. When I lost my period, I relished in that fact rather than flagging it as a cause for concern.

All of us had a drive to be thin—to reach performance goals, feel lighter during a race, or even slim down our bodies to look more like a competitive runner. What began as ambition very quickly became a disease.

Everyone on the team was extremely anxious about food, myself included. I vividly remember the tension when meeting up with teammates at the dining hall. We would anxiously look at each other's plates, which never had much on them—usually a light salad, even after running 10-plus miles that day. Everyone was so nervous about eating too much. No one wanted to be the odd one out, and that feeling was so visceral.

There was also so much stigma around breakfast and eating before or during runs. We would never eat beforehand, and after a very long run, we would treat ourselves to a latte. Ultimately we ended up fasting most of the day, despite rigorous training.

I internalized all of these ideas, and they grew tenfold in my own mind. The voice in my head would remind me: "you don't need to eat that" or "you've been crushing it lately, but maybe if you lost a couple more pounds, you'd run even faster." I truly believed that running extremely high mileage while eating very little was what it took to be a runner. 

I was left with an extremely unhealthy body with no menstrual cycle, energy deficiency, and a lot of mental fog. I was fueled by my negative body image, and continued to move through unhealthy training.

The problem was, I did start to see some early success in trail running, so I had no tangible reason to change my ways. After undergraduate, I decided to pursue running as a career rather than go to medical school. While I continued to have success at the beginning, it quickly became a roller coaster. I would have a stellar race, then crash and burn for a while. I was so in the weeds of being under-fueled, undernourished, and overtrained—until my body finally started to break down.

For a couple of years, I stayed broken. My body wasn't functioning, my mind wasn't functioning—and in 2016, I finally got to a point where I knew something had to change. Luckily for me, I also studied hormones and performance, so when I started to honestly look at the bigger picture of my health, I couldn't deny how horribly I'd been treating my body. I needed to pivot if I wanted to stay in the sport and reach my potential rather than continue to underperform and just feel like a miserable human.

How I turned my training and life around

I wish I could say that the second I decided to change my lifestyle, everything healed overnight. However, it took a good three or four years of constantly reminding myself I was on the right path.

That said, when I started treating my body with love and care, I did notice the difference pretty rapidly. People say, "You don't know what you don't know"—and that certainly applies to my experience. I was so deep in my unhealthy eating and training patterns that I thought it was normal to wake up every day feeling like crap.

The first thing I did was start working with a nutritionist and my physician. Under their guidance, I increased my protein intake and nutrient intake as a whole—basically, I stopped depriving my body and started listening to it. Within a month I felt like a new person. Thanks to that feedback, I quickly gained confidence in this new way of training.

I began fueling before, during, and after my runs, without guilt or shame. I eat breakfast every day, no matter when I'm running—and that change has been monumental for me. I also try to destigmatize any thought I have around food—I never second-guess my hunger or fuel needs.

Of course, it was really hard to stay steadfast all of the time, but feeling like crap wasn't my baseline anymore. To this day, however, I have to quiet the negative voices in my head that try to shame my new way of fueling and training. I have to acknowledge that the negative messaging is something from my past; it's not serving me anymore.

Now I'm much kinder to my body. I try to prioritize adequately fueling, keeping my mileage in check, getting enough sleep, and managing stress in other aspects of my life. Often, that means I must be thoughtful about where I extend my energy. Being a high-driving person—which I think a lot of runners are—realizing that work stress, partner stress, life stress, running stress are all the same in the body, was a very important lesson for me to learn.

Every so often, I still need to take a step back and reevaluate—focusing on the ways I can help, not hurt my body. I don't think I'll ever be done learning, even though I'm so much farther than I was a few years ago.

After my journey, one of my biggest goals is to showcase that if you're treating your body right, it really can work. Personally, I've never been as successful or healthy or fit as now, and I run less, fuel more, and sleep more. Success doesn't need to be tied to hurting your body.


My advice for others

We all have extremely unique needs. Something that works for you may be absurd to your friends—but don't let that deter you. Listen to what your body needs and honor that request.

Also, it's important to realize that while one body type might work for some people, it may not be the body type that works for you. You will continue to reach your best self if you start to acknowledge that, not fight it.

The reality is, our body will change numerous times throughout our life, irrespective of what we put into it or take out of it. There's no use fighting those changes. Instead, I encourage you to pay attention to what your body is asking for so you can help it function at its best in each chapter of life.

Keely Henniger author page.
Keely Henniger
Invisible Illness Contributor

Keely is a professional trail runner and scientist focusing on promoting healthy training. Through her social media platform, she utilizes her research experience to encourage healthy training and recovery methods specifically for female athletes. She has won and podiumed at multiple prestigious international and national races, held National titles, and has represented team USA at the World Championships. Most recently, she won the Black Canyon 100k, Gorge Waterfalls 50k and Lake Sonoma 50 mile, has placed top 10 at the Western States 100, and holds the FKT across Joshua Tree National Park.