We Don’t Run to Be Skinny

We Don't Run to Be Skinny

Yesterday, one of my friends and coaching peers mentioned the assumption that female athletes are driven by body image, not competition or love of the sport. Perhaps you have encountered this as well, with statements such as “why do you need to run so much if you are already thin” or an external focus on how you look like a runner versus what you achieve as a runner. 

We Don't Run to Be Skinny

Oftentimes, this assumption comes from our non-runner friends, not by a fault of their own but by the overarching societal assumptions that (a) all women care about is their appearance and (b) you only exercise to manage weight. Regardless, the assumption exists and permeates the collective ethos of women’s running.

Even within the running community, we fall prey to these assumptions. You read articles on how to get Lauren Fleshman’s abs, but not Galen Rupp’s. We struggle to toe the fine line between praising what the bodies of female athletes can achieve and praising (or deriding) them for how they look.

This topic certainly affects men, but women overall seem to grapple more with body image, at least in my experience as a female coach to dozens of female runners. Perhaps it is because women’s bodies endure the changes that can come with pregnancy and childbirth, or because we require a higher body fat percentage than our male counterparts.

In working with mostly female athletes, I often hear the phrase “I don’t look like a runner” or “I don’t have a runner’s body,” uttered as almost an apology. Body image issues do abound in the women’s running community, especially as we are bombarded by images of six-pack abs at track workouts on Instagram. The medium of Instagram shifts the focus from the hard work and progress to what we see in the image. The comparison trap can emerge and we can begin to pick apart the images of ourselves: my quads look huge in this photo or wow, why do my race photos never look perfect?

Yet most of us women who run do not run to be skinny. By skinny, I don’t mean lean and strong. Skinny, by definition, means waiflike, scrawny, bony, gaunt, or even underfed, lacking both muscle definition and body fat. 

Maybe running started out as weight management, but aesthetics are not the primary motivator for 13+ mile long runs and grueling speed workouts. We don’t sign up for races to receive picture perfect photos; we sign up to push our physical and mental limits. Ask any marathoner, and they will tell you a dozen reasons other than weight for why they train to run 26.2 miles. We train to compete better, whether against others or against our past selves. We train for the thrill, the accomplishment, even the self-selected suffering.

If anything, running can actually pack on weight in the form of lean muscle, the opposite of skinny. As Angela phrased it recently in a fantastic piece, we embrace our membership in the quad squad because of what muscular quads permit us to achieve. I know I weigh more now than I did when I started running due to muscle; I’m also running faster and am happier with my body.

If anything, obsessing over weight and body image can hold back athletes. The most extreme example of this is disordered eating and relative energy deficiency in sport (aka female athlete triad). On the less extreme side, there’s the risk of underfueling and compromising performance for fear of weight gain, or the low self-confidence on race day because we don’t “look like a runner.”

Running teaches us – and demands of us – that we fuel our bodies for energy, recovery, and performance, rather than restricting calories for a thigh gap or whatever other aesthetic currently defines female beauty. Running teaches us that we can strive to be more than skinny; we can strive to be strong, resilient, fast, hard-working, and supportive.

Sadly, there isn’t an easy solution to the issue of body image and societal expectations for female athletes. Even if you have a healthy body image, the societal assumptions and well-meaning comments from friends can often shift our focus away from the big picture – how strong our bodies are – and in on the minutia, such as the inevitable cellulite that every woman has or stretch marks from the miracle of pregnancy. We have to work continually to focus on what our bodies can do, not how they look

Body image and expectations are a constant battle, but thankfully, running equips us with the tools to fight it. 

[Tweet “Body image, expectations, and why we don’t run to be skinny via @thisrunrecipes #runchat”]

Do you feel like you should look a certain way as a runner?
Do you find that people assume you run for different reasons than you really do?


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8 Responses

  1. I think it’s really common to start out running for weight loss, but it seems the people who really stick with it o do so because they really enjoy it and get more out of running than just physical fitness. While running is a great calorie burn, I’m sure there are faster, more effective ways to lose weight if that’s your goal. It’s so interesting that there is such an assumption about this from people who don’t run, but you are so right.

  2. I think women have come a long way when it comes to body image but we definitely have a long way to go. After almost 20 years of running and racing I feel like I have run the gamut of emotions when it comes to my body and how I look vs what it does for me in racing. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile but, most of the time I don’t think about it AT ALL and I fuel and train to reach a goal. I try to keep it that simple but sometimes I fail. It’s an ongoing process but I love that you (and Angela and others) have written about it because it can never be discussed enough!

  3. so glad I am tackling my blog feed again this morning to see this post! you know I agree and I absolutely agree that most of the time, running won’t even give the weight loss people think that it will. Maybe at first, but not as you build mileage and muscle. I definitely took up running as part of my workout routine to keep me healthy and as part of maintaining the weight ive been for years but in that time, it totally became more about pushing my limits, getting faster and thinking about race distances and achievements rather than calories burned.

  4. I remember when I was 19 and living with housemates, I came back from a 15 mile run. I was living Houston at the time, and I was just hot and exhausted. I drank a glass of lemonade, and the girlfriend of one of my male housemates, who was a model, said to me, – You ruined it. What she meant was that I was drinking back the calories I just burned. At the time, I was skinny by any definition, and I just remember being blown away at the idea that I might run 15 miles primarily for weight loss, instead of to train for a long race.

  5. I definitely started running as a way to “get a runners body” and lose weight- now, that’s a perk but my focus is much more on what my body can do versus what it looks like! I sometimes slip back into the old mentality (it’s hard not to sometimes), focusing on what it can do, and how it gets me to my goals helps me to snap out of it.

  6. Fantastic piece. Ugh….body image struggles are real. Oftentimes, when I see articles about how a women’s body should look….I want to scream….and throw my phone…or computer….or whatever. As Allie said above, women have come so far with body image, but we have sooooo much further to go! I am getting better about being happy with how I look and thinking more in terms of what my body and legs have done for me versus trying to look a certain way. Because….in reality….I could do what society says in order to get Lauren Fleshman’s abs or thigh gap or ….and it would/may not work. Why? Because this is MY body! You cannot eat a certain way and be guaranteed a 6-pack (your legs might lean out, but not necessarily your mid-section).

    Okay….I will end my little rant. 🙂 Thank you for this post. I think you wrote about an extremely important topic today!

  7. I think the association with running and weight loss over the decades comes from the fact that it’s the easiest to start, most accessible form of exercise for the Average Joe. Anyone who is suddenly inspired to lose weight can throw out the junk food and go for a jog around the block right now if they wanted, but it takes a little more time and money to find a gym to join, figure out which activity you like, learn how to lift weights, get a bicycle, etc.

    A couple weeks ago I saw Twitter a rant about running from a lifestyle blogger – how running is bad for you body, the majority of runners end up injured, and that there are much healthier ways to lose weight. It’s interesting she assumes that’s the only reason people run. I think a lot of people just project their own motivations for exercise onto others. I guess it’s hard to imagine anyone would do this for fun if the calorie burn and having a “beach ready body” is the only thing that can drag you out the door.

  8. Yes, I have found that people think I run for other reasons (weight management) that I actually do (fitness, mental balance, joy!) and it boggles my mind when they think they know more about my motivations for running than I do. 😉

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