Focus on What Your Body Can Do

Focus on What Your Body Can Do

While my job is done at a computer, there’s a lot of photos of me involved: race photos, social media photos, etc. Instagram is it right now for social media and marketing, and with that comes Instagram running stars who might as well be models: perfect hair, skin free of sweat streaks and the redness of hard effort, a thin and highly toned body. 

I’ve never struggled with my weight; I’ve hovered around a healthy 125-135 pounds on my 5 foot 9 frame throughout my 20s. I lean down to racing weight during training and then subtly but certainly gain a bit of weight back in the off-season. I’m okay with my weight: I’m at a weight that allows me (emphasis on me as an individual, because every runner is different) to run hard without risking injury.

But the comparison trap sets in: I have a straight shape to my torso, muscular glutes and quads, and skin so fair that it reveals both any blemish and the fact that English-Irish blood courses through my veins. All that combined and I don’t always look like the Runner’s World cover ideal of a runner. Usually, I don’t really care. 

After a recent hike, I scrolled through the photos that my husband Ryan snapped. I hiked without a spot of makeup on my face, a hat covering my ponytail, my legs still swollen from the combination of speedwork and strength training in the past week. I cringed at the photos and thought, maybe I should have worn some makeup, or a more flattering top, or brushed my hair. Did my pants look tight or stomach soft? I asked. 

Focus on What Your Body Can Do


I have done the same with race photos, as I am sure many of you have. Forgetting the joy of running hard and the adrenaline of crossing the finish line, self-scrutiny emerges when those race photos arrrive. What’s that face I’m making? Are my thighs really that big? Why do I look like I’m just shuffling along when I was running my hardest? Or (if you’re like me), why do my arms look like those a T-Rex? We are all our own worst critics.

Focus on What Your Body Can Do

But never in those moments, while hiking up a mountain or running a marathon, do I pause and ponder how I look. In those moments, I’m really proud of what my body can do and is currently doing.

And I want you to be too. Who really cares how you look in race photos or hiking selfies? And if the answer is you, that you care – which I’ve been there too – think of which matters more to you: how your body looks or what your body can achieve.

Focus on What Your Body Can Do

Exercising improves body image; it’s a simple fact. But at the mirror-lined gyms with machines targeted to “tone” specific areas, exercise and appearance remained heavily intertwined. A common fear of the gym expressed by new runners is that they are worried others will judge how their bodies look.

Outside, whether it’s on the side of a mountain or an urban running path, no mirrors constantly remind you of how your body looks. Motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, and other runners pass by, absorbed in their current task. Exercise becomes more focused on what you can do when it’s just you out there on the road or trail. Can you hold your tempo pace for that mile? Can you finish 10 miles strong? Can you reach the summit of that mountain? When you see that mile split or reach the peak, you don’t care how your hair looks or if your muscles look “big” – you are elated at your achievement. 

Focus on What Your Body Can Do

Outdoor exercise has a tremendous power to improve body image by shifting the focus from how does my body look to what can my body do. Whether your goal is to summit that peak or run a marathon, the goal is only achieved if you train your body to work hard. You’re rewarded not by aesthetics, but by a lasting sense of accomplishment and heightened confidence.

Maybe you’ll lose weight, gain muscle, or look the same on the outside, but running outdoors or hiking has transformed you in other ways. You become stronger, faster, and more confident in your body and its abilities.

Each time I want to pick apart a photo for messy hair or my muscular legs, I stop. Would perfect hair and skinny legs have improved my experience? Would they have made me achieve a better finish time? Chances are, no – because it’s what the body can do, not how it looks, that leads to running that PR and climbing that mountains.

Focus on What Your Body Can Do


I’m not saying that you shouldn’t want your body to look healthy and strong and that you shouldn’t try to lose weight if you need to get down to healthy weight. I’m simply saying: focus on what your body can do, and you’ll be amazed at how much more confident you feel in your body. 

[Tweet “Focus on what your body can do, not how you look via @thisrunrecipes #running #runchat”]

How do you feel while looking at race/running photos of yourself?
What made you feel more confident recently?

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10 Responses

  1. I definitely agree with this, but I have to say it’s SO hard when you are injured and gaining weight/losing muscle tone to appreciate what your body can do, when its not allowing you to do the things you want to do. I try to focus on other things, but the fact that I can’t experience fitness in a way that I want is frustrating. Trust me, I’m grateful for being able to bike and lift weights. But I was way more appreciative of my body when I could run and train how I wanted. (Maybe my problem is not that I criticize how I look, but instead I criticize myself for getting hurt!)

  2. I always look at my arms, which always are so under muscled compared to my body, and think about what people are going to think. It wasn’t until the pictures of the Chicago Marathon that I looked at myself and thought, damn, I look strong. I am so self critical of my own pictures. Even though in real life, I focus on what my body can do, when I see pictures, it brings all of that to a halt!

  3. I’m always blown away by how all in all my race photos, both feet are ALWAYS touching the ground. Like, some part of my left heel and parts of my right toes are on the ground–NEVER are either of them off. And yet I am running my fool FACE off, hitting 6:50 min/mile paces. But, I know how I run. I run like a cross-country skier. Like a speed-walker. My hips sway, my arms are up high and doing circles at my sides, and that’s just how I run. I stopped giving an F at how ridiculous I look and I just smile and laugh at the comments people say to me about my running style because hey! It would be boring if we all looked the same.

  4. i always say how much harder it is to be a kid today in terms of viewing others on social media which must lead teens to scrutinizing themselves far beyond the way we did as kids. of course adults fall victim too and I hate the whole “fitspiration” thing always trending. just my two cents lol

  5. It is so hard to appreciate and accept our bodies when we see so many images of women with “perfect” bodies. When I find myself comparing my body to someone else’s or picking apart my perceived flaws, I repeat a little mantra to myself, “I am enough.” It always helps me take a step back and reframe my thoughts.

  6. My race photos are hideous. Just absolutely hideous. I always look like I got hit by a bus. I’m just not naturally photogenic, and I have to accept that. Some people are, and that’s why they look good even when they don’t “look good”. The cruel thing about the comparison trap is that a lot of the things we compare – pale skin, body shape, frizzy hair, being photogenic or not, attractiveness – are things we really have no control over.

    Our culture places a LOT of emphasis on beauty and physical attractiveness, particularly for women, and we have all spent our entire lives internalizing this, so it’s a really hard cycle to break out of even with all the body positivity messaging that has emerged in recent years.

    I agree with you that when we’re out in nature or rocking a great run, all of our superficial worries and comparisons just melt away and it’s so nice!

  7. I think I have the unintentional skill of avoiding race photos – I usually only get 1 or 2, even if a see a photographer on the course several times. As photos of myself go I usually actually like race photos though – candid pictures of me always turn out better than posed ones.

  8. “Why do I look like I’m just shuffling along when I was running my hardest?” <– THIS! Why is it that in most race photos, it doesn't look like you're running hard at all? Why can't we look like the 'staged' sprinter photos with perfect form and one knee high and the other leg stretched straight? (You know what I am talking about right?)

    I agree though: we should marvel more at what our bodies can do that what we look like doing it! My response to anyone who critizes: "When did you last run a half marathon?"…

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