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Among runners, there is a common (sometimes subconscious) perception of what an “ideal” body type looks like: low body fat on a small frame. In other words: lean and skinny.
It’s one of the widespread—and most dangerous—misconceptions in our sport. Genetics vary from person to person. That supposedly “ideal” runner’s body type is actually downright unhealthy for some people, and trying to achieve it can be dangerous for your long-term health.
If your body weight or body fat drops below healthy levels, or drops too quickly, your body may rebel, with disastrous physical and mental consequences from serious injury to hormone deficiencies or depression.
Yet, body image issues are shockingly common among runners. A study conducted at the Comrades Ultramarathon found that one-third of women in the race had disordered eating behaviors, involving abnormal thoughts about food and its relation to body image.
Even runners that don’t have clinically diagnosed disordered eating—runners that might not show up in statistical analyses—can unknowingly slip into unhealthy behaviors that cause negative energy availability. That means: seemingly innocuous diet restrictions that leave you with insufficient calories for other body functions after running. Whatever the label, many runners are secretly struggling in the chasm between what their brains want and what their bodies need.
So right now, let’s lift the stigma.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum of body image awareness, you are not alone. Countless professional runners and recreational runners alike are right there alongside you.
How does it start?
Body image issues arise for a number of different reasons, in runners and non-runners alike. No matter how the issues develop, understanding and empathy are vital.
Sometimes, runners associate being lighter with being faster, and they become unhealthy as a result. There is an iota of truth lurking here: a decrease in body fat or weight can enhance performance in some people. However, weight loss below healthy levels is a ticking time bomb. Anecdotal evidence suggests that power loss lags slightly behind weight loss. Initially after losing weight, an athlete’s power-to-weight ratio improves. Eventually, however, power may drop—far more precipitously than weight. Performance and health can suffer, leading to injuries or hormonal deficiencies.
Worst of all, the fuse seems to get shorter each time. The runner may recover and get back to full strength, but reverting back to weight loss causes performance to diminish even more quickly than before.
That first experience of associating increased performance with weight loss can trigger habits of calorie restriction. But runners need those extra calories, so we can easily lapse into negative energy availability. It’s a mental-physical cycle that can be very difficult to overcome, and may never completely leave.
Body image issues reach deep into the running community, and there is no perfect solution. But by confronting them head on we can learn to channel them in a positive direction.
Here are 7 resolutions for all runners:
1. Love yourself
Every morning, center yourself, take a deep breath and say “I will love myself today.” It is so easy to be self-critical, especially in a sport involving race clocks and tight clothing. Yet self-criticism is not a pleasant way to spend the short time we have on Earth.
Look down at that tummy roll, and say, “I love you tummy roll.”
Look at your funny nose, and say, “I love you funny nose.”
Most importantly, love your brain, love your thoughts and practice mindful self-criticism. Recognize the problem, acknowledge it and then try to let it drift away. At first it may be hard to love yourself unconditionally, but as with running itself, the more you practice, the better you get.
2. Love others
Today, right now, choose to be the kindest, most enthusiastic and optimistic person you can be. That is easier said than done, especially when things go really wrong. We find it helpful to ground ourselves in mortality—life has ups and downs, and then you die. By thinking about the end, we find it easier to focus on what really matters to you in the long run, whatever that may be.
As Kurt Vonnegut says in Timequake, “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
By exuding love, you could really make a difference for someone struggling silently. Best of all, you may start to love yourself more, too.
3. Eliminate tools of self-judgment
Often, hopping on a scale or staring at a mirror can lead to self-destructive thoughts—plus skewed self-image can mean that some runners are overly critical of what they see. Our rule for athletes is that unless they are losing weight at the direction of a medical professional, they should discard the scale entirely. It is difficult to dissociate those numbers from thoughts on performance and body image.
4. For many runners, a bit of extra jiggle (body mass) equals a lot of wiggle (faster running over time)
That is a crude way to put it, but it’s intentional. We all need to construct a new, more diverse notion of what a healthy runner looks like. Some runners need to have jiggle (excess body mass relative to other runners) in order to stay healthy and run fast long-term. The process of developing positive self-image is difficult and takes time. Be patient with yourself and try to avoid spirals of self-doubt about weight or size.
Research also shows that compulsive dieting and labeling certain foods as off-limits can lead to eating disorders. So remember that for many runners concerned about low energy availability, all food is good food.
5. Haters gonna hate
Triggering events can often seem innocuous—as simple as a coach or friend commenting on body composition or body weight. Triggers don’t have to be clear instances of criticism; they can also come in the form of comments intended as praise.
“You look stronger and healthier,” or “you don’t look like that other fast runner who looks unhealthy” should be avoided alongside “you are too skinny” or “you sure you need an extra slice?”
Runners coping with comments from others (even comments on other topics) should try to give each comment the weight it deserves—almost none—unless the person commenting is a medical professional with an ethical obligation to counsel you about your health. When haters hate, you gotta try to shake it off, shake it off.
6. Lovers gonna love
You never have to struggle alone. Talk openly to professionals or friends. People have a vast reserve for empathy when you give them a chance. Contact a free helpline. And if you don’t feel comfortable with any of those options, you can always contact us and we’ll be here to listen without judgment.
7. No regrets, ever
The past is in the past. Never beat yourself up about what happened yesterday. Move on, smile and love yourself today and every tomorrow from now on. Embrace what makes you unique. Embrace what you like about yourself. And most importantly, embrace what you might not always like about yourself.
We trail runners are all in this together. As a community, we should be open and honest about body image issues, and we should come together to make sure everyone knows they will be supported non-judgmentally. We’ll all come out stronger for it.
Megan and David Roche work with runners of all abilities through their coaching service, Some Work, All Play. They host the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.