Runners often feel pressure to drop weight to improve performance or to fit into a certain stereotype of what a runner ‘should’ look like. Even when training is going great, it’s common to go from a healthy outlook on training to facing negative body image issues. And those issues can become more exposed if suddenly, you’re no longer able to run. Whether you can’t train because of current social distancing requirements, a life or work situation that leaves you no time, or an injury that prevents you from getting in your miles, you may be struggling with more than just a lack of running.
Even the strongest runners are susceptible to negative thoughts around body image, especially when training is off the table. Runners forced to press pause will likely be feeling the physical effects of not training, and this can lead to feeling down on your body. Those feelings are completely normal, but can become problematic if left unaddressed. Here’s what you need to know to stay happy and healthy:
ACCEPT YOUR FEELINGS
If you’re struggling with body image issues right now, you’re not alone: When things around you seem to be out of control, we all have a tendency to start focusing on things we can control. For many of us as athletes, that includes body composition. When that’s combined with a lack of motivation to run or a lack of ability to run (due to injury or a quarantine/lockdown situation), this can manifest as a body image issue, explains Danelle Kabush, PhD, a registered clinical counselor and mental performance consultant who specializes in working with athletes. “This can be especially true for athletes who really love to race or compare themselves against other runners,” she adds. “When you can’t test yourself in your normal ways, it’s common to look for ways you can control and discipline yourself by controlling your body.”
AVOID SOCIAL MEDIA
It might be frustrating scrolling Instagram right now: For every post about an ultra-fit runner you envy, there’s another message about body acceptance or a joke about quarantine weight gain. These mixed messages can end up making you feel worse than ever, says Kabush, and if you notice your mood shift every time you start to scroll your social media feeds, it might be time to put the phone down or unfollow/mute accounts that trigger negative feelings. You might find a step back from social media altogether is required, adds Kabush.
IGNORE THE NUMBERS
If you’re stressed about body composition or body image right now, Kabush recommends stepping away from the scale, the measuring tape, whatever you use to measure anything related to weight. It’s too easy to become fixated on the number and forget who you are as a person, she adds. If you need to honor the daily ritual, consider a numberless scale that tracks trends, not numbers. This might even be a good time to leave your watch at home, or at least, forget about paying attention to distance or pace when you’re out on runs for a while.
FOCUS ON HEALTHY HABITS
If you know part of the reason you’re struggling with body image issues is because you’ve fallen into bad habits, that’s normal, too. “There’s an association right now with feeling like you’re on hold, or almost in a holiday or offseason,” says Kabush. “You might notice you’re more prone to grazing throughout the day, eating more desserts or drinking more. In a period where nothing’s coming up, you might feel like, ‘I can do whatever I want.’ But that gets old after a while. It might be time to start adding back some good routines and structures because you’re going to keep feeling worse and worse.”
SET A NEW GOAL
Part of the reason you might be fixating on body image is that you don’t have any other goals. Whether your race is canceled or you’re struggling with an injury, you can reset and refocus your running goals, says Kabush. Maybe you aim to add strength training to your routine and work toward a goal around doing squats instead. Or maybe there’s a certain distance you’d love to run that you can build up to or a run streak. There are plenty of goals that don’t require a finish line, and finding one to focus on right now may help take your focus away from body image.
SEEK EXPERT GUIDANCE
This is a great time to take advantage of telehealth options, says Kabush. You can seek advice from a registered dietitian or a sports psychologist or someone who’s an expert in disordered eating or body image issues. “Empowering yourself with knowledge is definitely key. Instead of intense, misinformed negativity or things you read or hear, find an expert to help you. And if it’s more emotionally-related then that might be time to see a counselor,” Kabush says. She likes the combined approach of learning about how to eat healthy for your needs while also talking about any underlying emotional issues around body image and food.