We are constantly bombarded by messages about what to eat, how to train, and what to look like to improve our running. We are looking for that “perfect” nutrition plan, that “perfect” training plan, and that “perfect” body shape to get us there. We all have common goals - to get faster, stronger, and to enjoy running for a long time.
What if I told you that having a positive relationship with your body plays a key role in making you a better, happier runner?
Body image is “how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or when you picture yourself in your mind”, but the definition does not actually end there. In fact, body image is quite complex. It also includes;
what you believe about your body
how you feel in your body
how you sense and control your body when you move (i.e. your physical experience).
Running Culture's Dilemma
Running culture elevates small, lean bodies as the epitome of optimal running performance. It makes sense, though, doesn’t it? Many of the running elites, professionals, and influencers in the spotlight are very lean and thin. It is easy (and encouraged) to think that if we are as lean as them, then we will be fast, too. It is the end-all-be-all for better running. This cultural norm may cause an unrealistic and all-consuming pursuit of this idealistic body--leading to a poor body image, poor running, and other unintended health consequences.
Research shows that the drive for thinness and fear of weight gain is one of many key factors in the development of disordered eating or eating disorders. Inadequate fueling, restriction of foods and/or whole food groups can lead to nutrient deficiencies, poor recovery, and poor performance. Experiencing guilt, shame, or comparing your current body to an idealistic standard is positively associated with developing an exercise addiction. This puts an athlete at risk for overexercise and burnout.
A negative body image and subsequent inadequate fueling and exercise addiction behaviors may negatively impact other areas of your life and health. It could impact your ability to be present with family, friends, or even at work. It may cause you to miss out on social events, or sacrifice your time to enjoy other hobbies. It could also increase symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The truth is - there is no definitive ideal body shape for different sports.
In fact, body sizes and compositions are largely determined by genetics. Although body size can be manipulated to a degree, it is ultimately up to our unique genetics to decide what size you will be to run your strongest, fastest and thrive in all other aspects of life. The body size and composition that supports your ability to run hard, fast, and live a full life is going to be different for everyone. It will be different than your running buddy, the fitness influencer, or the elite athlete on your TV screen.
So, what are some steps we can take to have a positive relationship with our bodies? Here are 5 easy tips to begin promoting a positive body image:
Reject the idea that thinness and leanness is the only way to be a good runner. We have to reject this narrative, or else this will always be a motivator for disordered habits.
Do a social media “purge”. If someone you follow causes you to feel poorly about your body--block, defriend, or put on a silent for a while (or permanently). If it is not serving you, don’t allow it on your feed.
Focus on how you feel vs. on numbers during your runs or to define your success. Instead of calories, body fat percentage, pace, distance, heart rate, etc., focus on how you feel. Is your breathing less labored and comes easier? Do your legs feel strong? Do you have more energy during your runs and for other activities during the day? How are you sleeping?
Write down character traits that you love about yourself. Journaling is not dead. Writing down some of these things that are not related to your body can remind you of how much you can offer this world. While your body and the scale may change from day-to-day, these character traits are things that do not necessarily change from day-to-day. For those that are visual people, it can be just the thing to jolt you from thinking negatively about yourself and instead thinking more positively.
Talk to someone. Find someone you trust and know has your best interest at heart. A family member, a running buddy, a significant other, reach out to someone if you are noticing that you have a negative body image. Having others to support you and encourage you can be such a key strategy in helping you have a positive body image. If they are truly someone who cares about you, they will not care how many miles you can run, how fast you go, or what your body size and shape looks like.
Questions? Comments? Don't hesitate to reach out! I'd love to hear from you.
Maddi Osburn RDN LD
Bacon and Aphramor: Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift. Nutrition Journal 2011 10:9.
Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals.