One Dirty Magazine

Lifting the Stigma: 7 Body-Image Resolutions for Trail Runners

Body image issues run shockingly deep in the running community.

David and Megan Roche February 14th, 2017

Lifting the Stigma: 7 Body-Image Resolutions for Trail Runners Understanding these issues can help a rainbow come out after a storm. Photo by David Roche

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.

 

David Roche and Megan Roche are runners for HOKA One One and Team Clif Bar. Megan is a student at Stanford School of Medicine. They work with runners of all abilities through their coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

32
Leave A Comment

avatar
17 Comment threads
14 Thread replies
6 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
20 Comment authors
BekiAGinnyPaulMatJulie Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Charlotte
Guest
Charlotte

Love this! Such a good message for everyone. Thank you David & Megan.

David Roche
Guest
David Roche

You are awesome Charlotte, thank you!

Mary Moran
Guest
Mary Moran

It’s ironic to see this article posted in Trailrunner. I actually cancelled my magazine subscription to Trailrunner last year out of frustration with a writer who included negative comments about larger sized women’s bodies in several articles in 2015. I called out the author in the comments section of every article, but she just didn’t get how her words were offensive. I hope Trailrunner Magazine will take your suggestions to heart when reviewing its content. Practice what you print, Trailrunner.

David Roche
Guest
David Roche

Hi Mary! Thank you for your comment! I imagine the story meant no ill-will, though like #5 tries to address, intent is sometimes irrelevant. All of us can try to be better, and I promise that the people in charge of Trail Runner GET IT. They are wonderful people who understand these issues. If there is any way I can help, let me know! You should consider re-subscribing, though understand if your trust takes more time to earn back.

Palmer
Guest
Palmer

Wow, I’m so impressed with this message. There are so many useful techniques included and as a trail runner who does not have the “ideal” runners body, these items will be very helpful on the course as well as in day to day life! Great information, thank you David & Megan.

David Roche
Guest
David Roche

So incredible of you to say Palmer!

Des
Guest
Des

Thank you for this article. I spent so many of my younger years trying to force my body into what I thought was the ideal. It’s not always easy to shut out the noise and focus on the positives about your body, but I feel like the more you work at it the more natural it becomes.

David Roche
Guest
David Roche

Thank you so much for sharing your journey Des!!!

Nance
Guest
Nance

Thanks for the article. I can relate as I’ve had to drop out of the ultra that I truly love to run due to just being discharged from a Eating Recovery Center. Last year I weighed 90 pounds and this year I weigh….not really sure but it’s a “healthy” weight. While I feel strong I can’t get out of my head the looks of my thighs, butt and stomach as I haven’t had these parts for several years at 90 pounds. I have a long way to go on my recovery but seeing articles like yours instead of other articles… Read more »

Erin
Guest

Nance, Thank you for your bravery in sharing your story! Honesty and reaching out for help are the most courageous acts…I am hopeful that you are well on your way to health. xo!

David Roche
Guest
David Roche

You are an incredible, beautiful person, and that is independent of what the scale says. Keep pushing and believe in yourself! This doesn’t define you, but you’ll have quite the story to tell when you’re back crushing the ultra next year!

Mike
Guest
Mike

Does a person have to see a doctor to say “I’ve gained some weight. I need to lose 10 pounds.”?

David Roche
Guest
David Roche

No, clearly, but a person shouldn’t worry about what non-doctors or medical professionals say about their weight.

Scott M
Guest
Scott M

David and Megan I appreciate you so much for writing this in a public forum like Trail Runner. So true and a good message for all humans, runners included! Power and speed doesn’t necessarily correlate with stick figures.

David Roche
Guest
David Roche

You are awesome Scott, thank you so much!

Diana
Guest
Diana

Beautifully said!!

David Roche
Guest
David Roche

Woohoo! You are great!

Duane
Guest
Duane

Thank you for the motivational article! I am just getting into trail running and I love it, even though I am built more like a linebacker than a sprinter.

Eve
Guest
Eve

If I ran a marathon in this body, with jiggles and all, I have a Trail runner body and I’m happy about it?

David Roche
Guest
David Roche

Exactly Eve! And way to go Duane! We love this!

Ryan
Guest
Ryan

Such a positive an often overlooked message! Great read!

David Roche
Guest
David Roche

You rock Ryan! Thank you!

BekiA
Guest

What an important article. Thank you, Megan and David. I’d be grateful if Trail Runner would consider featuring more images of and articles about runners who fall outside the “ideal” of body image. When we see ourselves– our shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, etc– we feel a part of the conversation. We feel included.

David Roche
Guest
David Roche

Terrific suggestion! I will pass it along!

BekiA
Guest

Thank you, David. I’m not sure if it is a coincidence or a result of your efforts, but I have noticed since this article that it feels like the diversity of topics in TR has really expanded. Masters and mental health to name two, and then in the Pilates article, there were images of a Woman of Color demonstrating some poses. This is really important to me at a time where notions of separation, power, race and affluence dominate the cultural conversation. Thank you for helping TR to be more inclusive.

Maura
Guest
Maura

I’m glad to see this article and love your approach! I may write down the core concepts for myself as a reminder. 🙂 I had an eating/exercise disorder for a long time in my 20s and it’ll always be with me to some extent… I need constant reminders that I’m okay as I am, even as my body changes over time. Thanks.

Theia
Guest
Theia

This is my favorite part.

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.”

I’ll try to be better about this!

Julie
Guest
Julie

Trail running and Kurt Vonnegut should intersect more often. My heart and soul belong to both.

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Mat
Guest
Mat

When I was admitted to an in-patient eating disorder facility several years ago, after having several years of incredibly fun and successful trail running, I looked down at my thighs that I detested and said “How could I hate you? You climb mountains. You win races. You pace your friends. How could I hate you when you do such amazing things?” I had to miss several races that year while I was in-patient and my friends were incredibly supportive then and now.

Paul
Guest
Paul

I disagree with number 3. It is like saying don’t bring a stopwatch to the track because you might not like the number. Every time I’ve gained unwanted excess weight it has followed a period of not weighing myself regularly. It’s hard to control something that is not measured. The better solution is to treat the scale for what it is, another piece of data no different than heart rate or lap times or weekly mileage or elevation gain or any other number of metrics we runners use to gauge our training.

Ginny
Guest
Ginny

This is a great article and important topic to address. I have heavier hips and thighs than I’d like. I am in my 50’s, a slow runner and usually content to finish a run near the middle of the pack. I have a steady and healthy weight, but I do keep thinking that if I could lose 5 lbs, I’d gain some speed and it would feel good to make some progress on my time. Given a healthy attitude about my body, that’s not necessarily a bad goal is it?