Find Your Strong- Is the “Runner” Body Image Finally Changing for the Better?

Honesty

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of media attention about our obsession with body image, and its effect on females, particularly young girls.

I have always been very sensitive to eating disorders, as I have a lot of close friends and family who have been battling it for many years.

It is something that has always bothered me in our sport, especially as many runners feel that you need to be “skinny” to be fast, which usually equates to the thought process of the skinnier the better.

It becomes a vicious cycle, and I hope it is one we as a society break soon.

A few years ago, my friend Esther Erb won the US Marathon Championships, booking her ticket to represent the USA in the world marathon championships in Beijing the following year.

Esther and I have spent many hours discussing the issue of weight while on long runs together, and we both have a very similar outlook on it.

Long term health, and knowing you have a future not only as a runner, but as a healthy human being is by far more important than looking like what our culture considers the “ideal runner image”.

I have noticed a change over the past few months; the stick thin, vein popping, gaunt look is no longer at the front of every race, and Esther is at the forefront of this change.

Not only did she come from the back to WIN the US Marathon Championships to be the model of a strong runner, but she also shares many inspiring articles about this topic on social media.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather weigh a few pounds more, but not be so fragile that one wrong move, and you are out for six months with a fracture.

Esther is the poster child for a strong marathon runner, just look at this picture

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Photo from downthebackstretch.blogspot.com

I asked Esther for a quote about this topic, and here is what she said:

“Women are finally publicly navigating the space that is being an athlete (traditionally a male role) and being a woman. Those conflicting images tied heavily into how we perceived ourselves as athletes and dictated an unnaturally thin and lean ideal body image, especially for the younger runners. If you are a college student and you want to compare yourself to Shalane Flanagan, look at pictures of her in her UNC uniform, not as a veteran marathoner at 33.  We change as we get older and run longer, and it’s something you can’t rush. It has to happen in its own time and it has to happen naturally.  There are no quick fixes in our sport, and any steps you skip, you’ll have to pay for later on. As a generation, feminists are embracing what it is to be a woman and we are moving toward no longer apologizing for who we are. Our role in that movement is wholeheartedly believing that the fastest runner you can be is the healthiest runner you can be.”

Isn’t she great?

You can follow Esther on her Journey through her Facebook Fan page HERE.

If anyone read my guest post on Run to the Finish, you will know that I talked about how greater participation rates from females are expected to close the gap between male and female performances.

What if the influx of strong, powerful runners is the beginning of this change?

After all, if you are not fueling your body correctly, it is never going to be able to make it to your true potential.

BUT, if we make strong, powerful women the prominent face of distance running, then we can encourage women to become stronger, keep performing at a higher level for longer, and keep pushing those boundaries.

Lauren Fleshman talked about this a little in her recent article, Do I Look Like a Man?

Lauren has always been one of my favorite runners to root for, she comes from behind, and is as tough as nails.

One of those people who gives EVERYTHING in her racing; something I have always prided myself on.

For the record Lauren, NO! You are a beautiful, strong woman, and this quote sums it up perfectly

“Our definition of femininity still has some expanding to do to catch up with the fact that women are athletes now, in lots of shapes and sizes. Women do sports. In droves. Fashion plays a huge role in defining femininity, so to the runway we must go.” -Lauren Fleshman

The most recent issue of Running Times covered Buzunesh Deba who is the image of a strong woman, as is Kara Goucher, who recently ran very well for her first race back since her injuries.

If we can convince the running world that you do not have to starve yourself, or become obsessed with eating healthy to run fast.

Life is all about balance, and it is okay to have pizza, a giant cookie stuffed with frosting, or a glass of wine at night.

Whatever you enjoy, you should be able to have it, even during the hard periods of training, as long as you are making sure you get the good stuff in there too.

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I have always prided myself on being strong, and not conforming to the pressures of being skinny. I know I may be toned, and I have a lot of muscle definition, but in the same way you compliment me for being real on my blog, I feel as though I am real as a person.

I eat too many servings of cookie dough ice cream, I binge late at night when I am not really hungry, and I enjoy a good old greasy burger when I go out to eat, and that is okay!

I can run even faster knowing that I am content with my life, and not starving myself for the “greater good”.

I would rather be able to look back on my life knowing that I enjoyed it, and made the most of the time I could eat excess calories, than spend my life dreaming of when I can eat those foods…..but then be too scared of weight gain when I am no longer running as much.

I really want to make a difference in this world, and all I can do is show my strength through my blog and my running ability.

I love that Sauconys slogan is find your strong, I am working on finding mine, have you found yours?

Do you ever let worries about body image prevent you from fueling enough? Do you think the female runner image is changing?

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60 Comments. Leave new

  • As someone who worked with those with eating disorders/disordered eating, it’s nice to see a lot of changes. Not just in running but forthis topic in general. I think that it will be a long time before we see the full effects but it’s nice to see it slowly changing. Great post and topic in general Tina.

  • That last paragraph was just amazing. Runners are human beings, too, and all have times where they eat things they crave. I love seeing this article and knowing that change seems to be on the horizon. I saw this with Miss America, too, actually. The bathing suit competition had more women that weren’t stick thin, but instead, they looked very healthy! It’s so important to get rid of these dumb stereotypes.

  • I never want to have that stereotypical runner look. I like to be filled out, not get all aged in the face from running so many miles and not eating enough that my skin looks old and gaunt. And, I will never understand how people run/exercise without eating to fuel it. I would be so hungry! And you know what I am going to say, but I will repeat what was said at the Fitness Mag Meet and Tweet, females need to know that not getting a regular menstrual cycle is not normal and not just okay because you run. Being thin to run but without a period is a warning sign. A regular cycle usually means you are balancing your calories in with the calories out. When that’s off and the period is missing, hopefully it signals to the female runner that something in the routine (typically what is being eaten) needs to be adjusted in order to stay healthy.

  • Great (and important!) post, Tina. I remember watching the Olympic Trials in Houston a few years ago and was struck by the HUGE range of body types- tall, short, thin, muscular and even almost stocky- yet they all had wheels on those legs… pretty amazing. It was encouraging to see such a range of body types can be that fast and talented!

  • I love this post. Before I started running I was very intimidated by the appearance of the stereotypical runner. But I now know that runners come in all shapes and sizes, and not one body type is required for success. I hope more people develop this mindset and adopt a healthy approach to running and body image!

  • I think it is so important that people get out and see races and see the type of people who are winning them. Yes, they have very low body fat, but that does not necessarily mean that they are unhealthy. In order to bring performance levels up, they must take care of themselves and their bodies by fueling properly and adequately–it makes them better athletes, even if they might weigh a little bit more.

  • I love love love you for leading the way with this.

  • Great post, Tina! I appreciate that you make the distinction that you can want your body to be fast but also be healthy in the long run (pun intended!).

  • If you can excel at your sport and your healthy and happy with your self, then it doesn’t matter what the hell you look like!

  • Beautiful post. I have to say, your US champion friend still looks pretty thin to me, but I do agree with your message: there is so much pressure society puts on their runners to look a certain way, and as a mesomorph/endomorph myself, i do long to have more ectomorph features but I love that I’m seeing more people of my body type champion through races! It’s so motivating! I think the reason why skinny runners are “popular” is because those people are built for endurance, you know? There is no need to starve yourself to get faster! It’s counterproductive. Reading this post makes me want to reevaluate my macros just to make sure I am eating enough to support my performance(as i don’t track calories).

    One thing that stuck it to me was the quote, “I can run even faster knowing that I am content with my life.” Wow. Those words speak to me so much. The importance of running, and running HAPPY has been lacking I my practices a lot. Yes, sometimes you need a good old kick in the butt and some real you tough love, but other times you need some warm love and joy in your practices. You’re bringing me to tears, Tina! That quote is the quote I am waking up to everyday from now on.

  • I’m a novice runner but one thing I’ve learned is that you aren’t going anywhere if you aren’t strong and properly fueled.

    Body type issues are different for men, but I also meet many men who don’t feel they are “real runners” because they don’t have that “take your shirt off to run” body.

    If you run you are a runner so you have a runner’s body. Concentrate on strength and proper fueling and forget about the rest.

  • I hope the image is changing and It would be great if it could change across the board not just in running. We are constantly bombarded with images of unhealthy and unrealistic looking women. There have been some changes in the past few years but we have a long way to go. As always, love your honesty and openness.

  • And this is why I love you! You are so healthy and balanced and I really, really hope that women out there are reading this and learning from it. I see far too much disorder in the blogosphere and far too much restriction. Like you said, you have to think of long-term health. I’d love to see things change and you and Esther are great role models for leading the way!

  • I think that in general I have my ‘skinny girl’ moments where I wish I was leaner and weighed less- as most girls do. But then 30 seconds later my hankering for chocolate kicks in and I give in. I think this is a subject that is ‘talked’ about more and more but in general is still not talked about enough. Eating disorders in anyone especially athletes are so difficult to watch. You need to fuel and refuel to maintain your abilities as that athlete. While yes being ‘lighter’ can help in ways of performance- it’s not going to do much if that light body doesn’t have the fuel or energy to make it go. It also isn’t helping if you’re constantly injured because you are malnourished and body cannot handle the pressure of training/competing. I do think that the ‘image’ of runners is slowly changing- but a lot needs to be done on OUR parts to make sure it stays going in the right direction. Doctors, coaches, professionals talking about it is not the same as the actual athletes talking about it. We need to talk to each other, talk on behalf of the running community. Women are more likely to listen to their peers than others. Now I’m done blabbing but great post Tina and certainly a great topic to be discussed especially by someone as fit and strong as yourself!

  • A really important post! Running was the first form of exercise I did that had me focusing on what my body could do instead of how it looked! I didn’t concern myself with my weight but with my endurance and strength. It was life changing!

  • OMG I LOVE those quotes from Esther AND Lauren! I do think the image of the female athlete is changing. Honestly, from experience, you can never judge how someone’s going to perform simply on body type, Awesome comes in so many different packages.

  • Looooove this post and thank you so much for it. I am not a “skinny” person and will never be, but I am fit and strong. That said, after losing 80lbs and being in a sport where “the lighter the better” is often pushed, it is easy to feel like less of an athlete for not being skinny and to over stress about weight. This is a great message and thanks for writing it. ANd Esther is one of my very favorite runners. She is amazing!!

  • This is such a great post, and it was a tough lesson to learn as an adult. I didn’t grow up paying attention to what “runners” looked like because I had never been exposed to “that world” so it wasn’t even on my radar. And even though I thought I knew better, I still got caught up in thinking thinner meant faster. I eventually restricted myself while training for my last marathon so much that I made it to the start line with a stress fracture (and only slightly lighter than what I am now, if at all). It took me a while to realize that focusing on running, not eating (or not eating) would help me get faster. Thanks for this post; it’s nice to know the change is making its way to the top. 😉

  • Such a strong message and something that really needs to be said! I feel that this goes to women in general too, not just runners. I CAN’T run if I don’t eat enough. I literally get sick and want to pass out. I don’t know how people do it.

  • Oh I definitely used to let body image prevent me from fueling enough. I wasn’t training, but I went through a period where I wasn’t running a lot… mainly because I just couldn’t sustain it. Now I’m probably over-fueling just a tad (just a tad!) so I need to find a happy balance.

    Anyway, I think female runners are really making a come around. I think one of the things that stuck with me the most was when you said (or my friend Lesley, but probably both) that most runners are underweight before a big race but then spend the next few weeks GETTING BACK TO A HEALTHY WEIGHT. That is also something that people need to realize. Also, most elite runners are naturally built very, very lean. You don’t see italians out there winning marathons, do you?? xoxo

  • This is something that I struggle with a lot actually and I really appreciate you posting this, two years ago I lost seventy pounds and as I try to incorporate strength training into my workouts I find my weight is beginning to climb back up and I constantly have to remind myself that I don’t have to go back on a diet just because I am gaining muscle.

  • Such a great post and such an important topic! I think that there is a shift among runners and in social media…but I think there is still too much emphasis on body image. Hopefully it continues to shift towards a more healthy perception. Moderation is my word, I don’t think it’s healthy to deprive yourself of something because it’s “bad,” but I think you can enjoy everything in moderation…like chocolate 🙂

  • I would LOVE one day to talk about this over a really BIG greasy hamburger and fries…You are my kind of woman…burgers are actually my go to before half marathons. LOL! Great post! XOXO

  • This is a fantastic post. I started my love for running doing track and field, and I look back at my pictures from high school and college and I was an unhealthy weight. I was 6’1″ at 130 lbs. Through the years due to aging and illnesses I have gained weight and no longer like a stick, but I feel stronger than I did when I was younger. back then I had no concept of proper fueling and had these crazy binge eating moments when I got super hungry. A lot of it because this perception that I had to look a certain way. Yes, I am struggling with weight problems– but I think a lot of it is that sometimes I compare myself to the old me and it drives me crazy.

    P.S. Congrats to your friend!

  • Runner legs are super sexy!!!!!! I cannot get enough! 🙂

  • YES I HAVE! We are absolutely on the same page with this today. Loved reading this and the strong women will absolutely lead us into the future of running. I’m following YOU!

  • I have never looked like the typical long distance runner because I’m not super thin but I’m completely fine with that because I know that I’m strong and that has always been my goal. I love that this is becoming more and more common.

  • As someone who has struggled with their weight for a long time, I think that so much of what you see of yourself physically is how you feel about yourself aka self esteem. For people who are naturally thin, I don’t think understand that internal struggle others go through. I think it’s important to emphasize strength on the inside as much as on the outside because they definitely are related.

  • yes!! it’s the same for men too.. oh trust me, i live with it. Power to weight –> I HATE THAT. But health is first! one of the world fastest triathletes (woman) is actually far from ideal race weight, but oh so healthy and strong. THAT MATTERS more.

  • This was such a wonderful post. As a runner who has struggled with an eating disorder for 3 years now, this article was much needed. I’ve gotten so wrapped up in the thought that I need to eat strictly “clean” things in order to be a better runner. Lately, though, I’ve been running poorly compared to what I was able to do at this time last year; perhaps my body needs a bit of the “unhealthy” stuff, too, in order to work properly?

    • That is very brave of you to post on here Abby, and I am happy you were strong enough to do so. If you want to talk/vent I would be happy to talk to you on the phone or through email. I think it is absolutely going to help you to enjoy some unhealthy foods. I think it will mean you have a whole new appreciation for food, as you will enjoy eating more, and you work hard, so you earn it. Congrats for making it as far as you have so far, time for the next step. I have helped a few people I know get over this next step, and I would be happy to help you too. See it as energy, and with more energy, you can run faster 🙂

  • Yes yes yes! Love this post, love this attitude. I think it is so good to see you posting this. I think healthiness and fueling yourself properly is so key. Something it took me a while to learn.

    On a personal note I’ve missed you!

  • This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time. I just love everything about it. We put WAY too much pressure on ourselves to be “perfect” that we forget to just enjoy – the perfect life will never be lived in such a limited manner. I’m gonna go eat a pizza now!

  • I love you even more for bringing this up!

  • Love this. Great quote from Esther as well. I’m far from an elite, but I’d rather have a good run because I’m properly fueled than be skinny. #wowlinkup

  • Loved this post!! And your outlook on food and exercise. I have a lot of people in my family who have struggled with eating disorders so this post was close to my heart:)

  • Now this post just made me extremely excited 😀 I -hope- the image of the female athlete is changing! And it would be nice if we could extend that to all women in general because the skinny and tired look is getting a little old… And not only that, but it’s taking away so much of our value as women. Why? Because maintaining that kind of look and lifestyle is all-consuming and leaves us too exhausted and drained to live up to our full potential. Grrrrr 😡

  • I love this. That racing picture is AWESOME!! I’d love to think we are on the right track of changing body image for the better. One female at a time, right? 🙂

  • Oh wow do I love this! Thanks for a great article and for sharing!

  • I’m not just a runner but I’m always happy when the door gets open to all body types being beautiful. Health doesn’t come in one package and I’m happy when I see people embracing who and what THEY are. I have broad shoulders I always will I can’t change that, and some of us will never have a six pack, especially after kids. It comes in all sizes we need to embrace it.

  • I just absolutely love this post! I think creating conversations about positive body image is so important, so thank you!

  • Fueling properly and feeling good, is much more important to me than what someone else thinks about my body. I know I am strong, I know what I can do with this body. That person over there judging me probably can’t do half the things I can! My body is my temple!!!

  • As always, fantastic post, Tina! There’s a lot of literature out there detailing how fewer pounds = faster times, and it can be hard to walk that line between wanting to perform better and being at a healthy weight. I was 10-15 pounds lighter when I ran my marathon PR and I was definitely too thin. I think there’s a push back by women to focus more on being strong than being really skinny, which I hope continues to get more emphasis. Keep on doing what you’re doing and promoting healthy body image!!

  • Excellent post!!!

    I think in every sport there is a certain body image we want to aspire to because that is what the elite embody; in Crossfit – bigger is better, stronger, thicker.. but genetically just isn’t going to happen for a lot of us!

    Your friend looks awesome and so strong, and that is great that you can accept yourself as you are and you are still crushing all of your runs!

  • I definitely believe we woman have to define ourselves as we see fit and as we feel comfortable. No one else can do it for us. We need to support all women on and off the pavement because if we do not stick together, then we can’t expect the views and perceptions of the ideal female body type will change. Strong women indeed come in all shapes and sizes and for that I am fascinated and thankful. We are all strong in our own right so I AM WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR!!!! It’s all good and your friend looks FANTASTIC! Shared her photo on my fan page. #wowlinkup

  • What a fantastic post! I love reading about women who empower others, especially when it deals with body image issues. Thank you so much for this! #wowlinkup

  • Great post, Tina! I think lean and muscular looks so much better than scary skinny! And the proof is in the times, right? Brava to you, Lauren, Esther, Kara and all the women who make “healthy” and fast–not skinny– the aspiration!

    I’m thin bc of genetics (& running, LOL). Honestly, psychologically I’ve definitely “felt” faster when I am lighter from heavy training. BUT the fact is I’ve run a few PRs and had that certain “oomph” when my weight has been up a few pounds, so there you go.

    I don’t think it’s just an issue for women runners. I’ve read about the pressure on male marathoners and distance runners to be thin, too. (Meb only weighs 125! And he often talks about dieting to stay light before races)

  • LOVE this, Tina!! Coming firsthand from an eating disorder I know how terrible they can be and how demoralizing they are. I’m so happy to say that I finally feel at peace with myself and my body and I’ve never felt better! As for late night binges, a greasy burger, or too much almond butter, while it’s not the best thing we can eat for our physical selves, our mental selves are just as important! Since eating more I feel so much stronger and can’t even think about how I used to be!

  • Strong really is better than thin for all athletes in the long term. Glad people are finally coming around to this, but elite runners still have very little body fat, and probably need to be lean for optimal performance.

  • Thanks for tackling such an important topic! So well articulated – hope we can all find our strong whether we’re runners, lifters, yogis or just awesome chicks!

  • Great post. Esther looks amazing in that picture. What a great role model. My husband always says he never wants me to look like run of ‘those marathon chics.” lol i think everyone needs to find what works for them. my goal is always healthy and strong, and eating too little makes me feel weak, so i am out!

  • What a great post! I hope a healthy look is in. I think I waited so long to try running because runners looked so skinny and looked mad all the time! It is great to see healthy bodies and big smiles! I hope the trend effects all women not just athletes!

  • What a great post! Eating disorders hit close to home for me too and I love that the outlook on women’s bodies is changing. Find your strong. I love that! Strong and healthy is so much more empowering than skinny and fragile. Thanks for sharing!

  • I love this topic…well, I love to hate it. I have an athletic build, much like a gymnast and for years tried to achieve the runners build while not appreciating all of the awesome things my strong body could do. Now that I’m in my late 30’s I’ve decided I can’t keep thinking that way…I have to appreciate what I can do at this size and live life to the fullest.

  • Wow great post! I love your quote from Esther, I think too often we compare our beginning with someone elses middle. I love that times are changing for us ladies and its time to embrace that we all come in different shapes, what matters is that we are healthy and doing what we love to do.

  • I love this so much, Tina! And that quote from Esther is so smart and true. I’d never thought about the perspective of a college woman comparing her body to a professional athlete at the peak of her career instead of when that athlete was in college as well. Really thoughtful.

    It’s just such an ongoing shame that female athletes’ bodies are scrutinized and criticized (both positively and negatively) to a greater extent than male athletes.

    I love your attitude and how REAL you are. Thanks for writing this.

  • Very well said!

  • what a great post. I gained weight while training for a half and it really really made me feel bad and question if I wanted to keep running. ive recently added more lifting and strength training and I like it. I love muscular arms and I really do think that the female athlete body is changing a bit. stick thin just isn’t “strong” to me. and I like what you say about living an overall healthy life and not worried about depriving yourself of foods you love all the time. thanks for these comments !

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