27 August 2021. It is a date Nina Chydenius will never forget. After an over 10-year battle with eating disorders, she crossed the finish line first and took home gold in the 10 000-metre race at Kalevan Kisat, the Finnish Athletics Championships.
The win was a long time coming. Despite Nina’s impressive sports acumen, she started running relatively late. At 19, after swimming competitively for years, she realised her real strength was in running.
Now Nina is 32 and has several medals under her belt from Finnish championship races in 10 000 and 5 000 metres and half marathons. But it was the gold that vindicated all her hard work and dedication and proved that she still has a lot to achieve in sports. In fact, Nina feels better than ever and is targeting the 2022 European Championships in Munich and the 2024 Olympic marathon in Paris. At the same time, she wants to create awareness of how common eating disorders are in sports.
We caught up with Nina to talk about an athlete’s lifestyle, setting an example for her kids and how eating disorders are misunderstood.
How did you get into sports and running?
My family didn’t really do any sports. I wanted to try swimming when I was eight years old; that is how it started.
I did everything myself. I organised travel to training and competitions, packed my bags and snacks etc. My dad is an entrepreneur and loves his work, and he taught me that if I really want to do something, I need to do it myself. There are always hard times in life and sports, and I think the best entrepreneurs and athletes are those who can quickly get over failures.
Also, my style is that I focus on it entirely if I decide to do something. When I swam, I swam in the mornings and evenings and didn’t have any other hobbies. Then at a school gym class, I realised that I could run. When I was 17, I was an exchange student in California and tried cross-country running there. I started winning competitions, which felt great, and I was the best in the school out of roughly 3 500 students.
But I had started to struggle with anorexia and had to come back to Finland. I spent some time in hospitals and was meant to return to swimming after that. But instead, I signed up for the Helsinki City Marathon. The moment I finished that race, I knew it was time to stop swimming. I felt like I had found peace after 11 years of competitive swimming.
I was 19 then. I found a coach and told him I wanted to run in the Finnish championships and qualify for the national team the following summer. I aimed very high from the get-go, but I believed in myself and I achieved those things. I’m a firm believer in intuition and can even quickly make big decisions.
What made you pursue a career as a professional athlete?
I absolutely love competing. I’m interested in what my mental and physical boundaries are and what I’m capable of achieving. And this only really happens at races. You need to give your all if your goal is to reach your maximum physical performance.
For me, it is about the moment when you question can I do this, can I push a bit more. And it isn’t always that you can, and then you need to be able to overcome that feeling.
What has been your most memorable competition or sporting experience?
Winning the 2021 Finnish championships in the 10 000-metre race. I had dreamt about that moment for 10 years. It was an unbelievable feeling, it still makes me tear up. I had lived that moment in my mind so many times, and when the starting gun went off I just went for it and never looked back.
I think it happened now, after so many years, because I had finally recovered from the eating disorders and my second pregnancy. For years, I had raced and competed whilst ill and, in a way, as a broken person, and finally I could see what I could achieve. My mind and body were in balance, giving me the confidence I needed.
My next goal is to break the Finnish records in half marathon and marathon from the 1990s. I know I can do that and that really inspires me.
There are always setbacks in sports. So how do you cope with the difficult moments?
Actually, I’m just recovering from an ankle injury. In March, I started to have problems with my ankle and had to skip the Rotterdam marathon. Basically, there is liquid in my ankle.
An athlete’s life is full of scheduling and counting hours for rest and training. When there is an injury, the thinking is: “I’ll take it easy for a moment and then I’ll go again”. But you need to be able to accept the situation and make peace with it. If you feel a lot of pressure about getting back to full training, that stress will affect your body and healing is slow.
In a way, an athlete’s biggest strength is optimism. You need to be able to live in uncertainty and believe that one fine day training will feel normal again. However, injuries are always mentally challenging and you also have to accept that there will be days you can only see the negatives.
You are also a mother of two. Has being a parent changed your approach to sports?
I’ve found that being a parent really motivates me. Currently, there aren’t other parents with small kids in the Finnish national team. It’s important to me that I can set an example to others and my kids, that you should dream big and believe in yourself.
Many things in everyday life aren’t fun, but you have to do them. Competitive sports are an excellent way to show that to my kids. For example, they might ask if I really have to go running when they see the weather is awful outside. My answer is that I don’t have to, but I want to go.
We don’t push them to do any sports. What is more important is the mentality. No matter what your dream is, go for it. It can be some other passion than sports. My dad has instilled this attitude in me. Not many people can say they are pursuing their dream every day, and I’m very grateful I can do that.
Your running career has been overshadowed by eating disorders for over 10 years. What would you like people to understand about these illnesses?
That they are mental illnesses. I feel it took me years to get better. Learning about how to eat doesn’t achieve anything. You need to deal with your traumas and your harmful behavioural models and learn to replace them with new models. It can take years to understand what triggers certain behaviours and how to get well.
Eating disorders are common in sports, but, still, many clubs and coaches focus too much on how to eat when discussing them. The eating problems are just a symptom, not the cause. I’ve spoken at Syömishäiriökeskus‘s [the Centre of Eating Disorders] webinars on how to help athletes with eating disorders. However, not many people understand how complicated these illnesses are and how they go hand in hand with depression.
I was seriously depressed at times and, at my worst, I spent six months in a closed ward. When I started to get days off from there, people commented that you are so thin, you can eat as much as you want. I was thinking I wish it was that easy. It wasn’t about what I could eat physically but how it affected me mentally.
Now I volunteer to help young athletes who need a support person. It is essential to speak with someone who understands you. Friends and family don’t often know how to support an ill person because there isn’t much they can do. And that can cause more anxiety for everyone.
One of the worst things about illnesses like bulimia is the shame you feel. You feel so ashamed, you try to hide it and lie about it all the time. It is part of your identity and a safety mechanism for dealing with difficult emotions. The hardest thing is that you have to rip open your traumas and, in a way, remove a part of yourself to get better.
What helped you to get better?
In a way, competitive sports motivated me to improve as I wanted to see what I’m capable of when I’m healthy. I tried to get better for years, but in the end the two pregnancies and my kids really helped me heal and find new behavioural models. I wanted to be healthy for my kids, they made me feel like I was worthy of something, and the pregnancies made me love my body again.
I noticed how much positive energy and time I have for myself and everyone when I’m healthy. Being ill for years and overcoming it gives you a competitive advantage. Nowadays, I can take almost anything, my tower won’t fall easily, and knowing that is very empowering.
Also, I have a lot of gratitude for life and that my body didn’t give up on me. People don’t always value their own health.
What is your typical day like?
My kids usually wake me up in the morning. I have my morning coffee and breakfast and take the boys to daycare. Then I have my first training session of the day. After that, I eat, rest and do a few hours of work for Raisoft. Then I have a second training session in the afternoon before I pick up the boys and spend the rest of the day with them and their hobbies. When I’m with my kids, I’m 100 per cent with them.
I have to travel for competitions and training camps, so I enjoy a peaceful home life when I’m home. For example, last winter I spent three months training abroad. My kids joined me for part of it and their grandparents helped when I wasn’t home.
My fiancé, Sebastian Mannström, is a professional footballer, and for years we focused on his career. Now it’s my turn to focus on my career and he supports that completely. We are both ready to make compromises to support one another when they want to do something important for them. I feel privileged that I can pursue my dreams but don’t have to sacrifice family life for that.