First question: Do you run (or jog or walk/run or any combination of these)?
Second question: Do you have a body?
If you answered yes to both, well then, congratulations, you have a runner’s body. If you don’t believe me, it is probably because you’ve been conditioned to believe otherwise — and you aren’t alone. Why are we constantly confronted with the myth of the runner’s body and what can we do about it?
UNDERSTANDING THE RUNNER’S BODY MYTH
Often — not always, but often — exercise and weight loss are considered synonymous. In fact, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey published in 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), exercise was the most commonly reported method of people who were trying to lose weight (over things such as eating less and consuming more fruits and vegetables). This idea that exercise results in weight loss helps perpetuate the idea that if you exercise, you are likely to weigh less and achieve an ‘ideal’ body type. However, it is important to recognize size and fitness level aren’t one-in-the-same.
For professional runners, striving for what is thought of as the ideal runner’s body starts very early on in both youth and college sports. Though a wider variety of body types are being widely recognized and celebrated in our current culture, efforts need to be made as early as childhood to help reinforce that your body, no matter the size, can do amazing things and work for you.
“I think it really has to get through at the college and high school level before we will see any dramatic changes, as many high school and collegiate athletes still come out of their careers feeling that there is only one way to get faster, and that is through losing weight,” explains Tina Muir, a retired professional runner and host of the Running for Real Podcast. “Until we can get all coaches on board with the understanding that there are different shapes and sizes, and each runner has to find the body that works best for them, I don’t think we will reach a point where things change for good.”
Because the need for achieving what is thought of as the ideal runner’s body starts so young and is an issue many collegiate and professional runners have admitted they struggle with, it is no wonder it can easily trickle into the lives of recreational runners as well. Of course, our culture in general — not just in the world of running — plays a large role in this idea that there is an ideal body type and you can (and should) hack your way to getting it.
ACKNOWLEDGING OUR PROBLEMATIC CULTURE
In any discussion of a runner’s body, it is important to note that, though it is easy to think of this as primarily a women’s issue, men also struggle with it as well. In fact, more men are coming out discussing issues they’ve faced trying to achieve what has for so long been considered the gold standard body type for running success. One of those is Mario Fraioli, a journalist and creator of The Morning Shakeout, who wrote a firsthand account of his history with disordered eating and the sport. Admissions such as his are vital and Muir shares some insight into why this is.
“We, as women, think it is difficult working through this pressure to look a certain way, but at least there is a conversation for us,” admits Muir. “For men, it is very rare to hear it even mentioned and with the pressure on men to not speak about emotional issues, that has to be really tough.”
Though the advent of social media has allowed for more discussion and awareness surrounding the importance of body positivity and how weight and health aren’t mutually exclusive, it has also led to even more chances to play a comparison game with others. Of course not all cases of striving for the runner’s body lead to issues such as disordered eating or depression or a number of other conditions, but it is important to recognize the issues at all stages and know you can get help. You deserve to feel comfortable in your own skin.
LEARNING TO ACCEPT YOUR BODY
During her career, Muir shared her personal experiences with amenorrhea, which ultimately led to her retirement. Due to the demands of her career and the strain it put on her body, Muir didn’t have a no period for nine years. She didn’t realize a huge problem was her undereating; something she wasn’t able to work through until seeing a dietitian. After retiring she worked to gain weight, restore her period and is now a mother.
“A lot of [my turning point] was working with [registered dietitian] Nancy [Clark], realizing that I could let go of the control without anything bad happening,” Muir shares. “Once I realized I was, in fact, undereating — after years of denying it — I started to think about how much better I could have been if my body had been fueled correctly and given the opportunity to succeed. Sure, I would look different than the girl next to me, but if my body was strong, what did that matter? What mattered to me was running the best I could.”
Muir’s ‘fear’ of gaining weight and looking different than the girl next to her? That’s the perpetuated idea of the runner’s body. And it’s all a cycle; the pros look at each other trying to maintain a baseline body type and everyday runners are looking at the pros and their success and deciding they need that body type too; around and around it goes. Luckily, more and more runners like Muir and Fraioli are bringing this issue to the forefront and furthering the conversation to break down the idea that only one body type can be fast.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Part of accepting your own body is appreciating what it can do for you and deciding to do what is best for it in return. If running is part of that equation, that is great. But running specifically to lose weight or to look a certain way isn’t the answer. If accepting your body means unfollowing people on social media or logging off altogether, then by all means, do it. If it means seeing a therapist, then make that appointment (because there is absolutely nothing wrong with needing and asking for and seeking out help). It may be as simple as looking in the mirror and appreciating one thing about your body each day.
“We often look at the parts we don’t like and feel frustrated with them as they don’t look as they should,” admits Muir. “But how about you look at your strong arms; the arms that have carried endless of bags of shopping or pumped back and forth tens of thousands of times as you have run. How about you look at your belly with stretch marks and smile, knowing that it has grown a baby inside. Or you could look at your legs, and thank them for being strong enough to allow you to run, whenever you want; those strong legs have powered you up hills. If you try to find the things you do like about your body and celebrate them [you will often find] hidden strengths in the parts you don’t feel comfortable with.”