From the Archives: What Is A Runner’s Body?

As a reminder, I am on vacation this week and planning to be ‘mostly offline’ – so I scheduled a few post ‘reruns’ from the very early days of the blog (when I had very few readers)! This one was originally posted here.

The other day in her otherwise great post, Laura said “I don’t even “look” like a runner”. My first thought was ‘SURE YOU DO!’ … but my second thought was ‘I know EXACTLY how you feel!’ In fact, just before I started this blog I did a guest post on the subject for Ann’s Running Commentary. Here it is:

Here’s a quick mental exercise: close your eyes and think of a large group of people. Maybe folks you work with, go to school with, ran your last race with, or whatever. Have them in your head? Great – now separate them into two categories: those WITH runner’s bodies, and those who do NOT have runner’s bodies. OK, now place yourself in a group.

First off, I am going to assume that most of you put yourself in the non-runner’s body group. If not, you probably don’t need to read this … at least not for yourself!

Next, I am going to further assume that the division you made was very easy for some body types and difficult for others. Morbidly obese = non-runner; looks like Ryan Hall = runner. But what about someone who looks like Kara Goucher but is 50 pounds overweight? Or someone who has short legs, awkward joints, but is thin and muscular? And when you got to the ‘toughest’ group, what divided them?

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Right around college graduation

Now to break it down further, select 5 people from each side. Five runners, five non-runners. Choose gender as you wish to break down the differences. At this point you should have a pretty distinct idea about who does and does not have a runner’s body – and what it is about YOU that puts you in the ‘NOT’ category.

But what if I said that ALL TEN of these people had just completed a marathon? Suddenly you would start reassessing your decisions. And if I further said that of these ten, four had ‘Boston Qualified’ … but only TWO from the ‘runner’s body’ side? Again your decision-making would be thrown into turmoil.

So … What is the Deal with the ‘Runner’s Body’?

For many of us who came to running not as a high school or college sport but as a purely optional activity later on in life, weight loss was at least part of the motivation. Perhaps overall fitness, but even in that case it generally starts with dissatisfaction over how we look.

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At a convention the summer before college senior year

As I mentioned before, I graduated high school at 275 pounds and college at 375 pounds … so it is a fairly safe assumption that I was very unhappy with how I looked and felt. As I also mentioned, for me running was all about weight loss and maintenance – and after that the ability to eat more or less whatever I wanted with few consequences. Well, other than the consequence of never really hitting my ‘ideal’ weight, and that when I stopped exercising the weight would gradually come back.

But for the last year or so my goals have been about speed, distance, and seeking constant improvement in my running as well as my diet and overall health and fitness. It might seem like the same thing, but in reality my outlook, priorities and goal system is very different than ever before. I concerned myself with running shoes (instead of whatever fit and felt decent and was less than $50 on sale at Foot Locker), running clothes, form, pace, and general tracking.

I also learned about looking at food as fuel. Again, it is something I have always known and my eating habits tend to be naturally pretty good, but I learned about losing weight by myself with the advice of others in the 80s and again when my wife was in Weight Watchers a decade later. And frankly, aside from ‘eat real food and avoid processed crap’, most of that stuff was wrong. So now I am properly fueling and eating more ‘superfoods’ and learning great (and not so great) new recipes every week.

To go along with it, I started caring more about my appearance. Whereas before I was happy running ~12 – 15 miles a week and being ‘thin’, now I am asking more of myself. Not just more mileage, but also more speed, variety, and overall fitness.

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Early in the 2012 weight loss process … still close to 250lbs

I lay this all out for a reason: for the first time in my life people are quick to assume I’m a runner – I have been told that I ‘look like a runner’ in some form many times this year. Before I would get a ‘oh, you’re a runner’ reaction that was not dismissive but also did not do much for my already crappy self-image. Now I will get comments like ‘you can save on car rentals by running to the plant’ from people I have never directly mentioned my running.

It is weird – because I certainly do not see a ‘runner’s body’ in the mirror. What is it that holds me back? It is pretty simple: I do not see myself as either small or thin. Let’s take those one at a time.

I do not see myself as small: look, I played on the high school football team for a year until a faulty set of pads combined with a well placed hit gave me a hairline fracture on my sternum. More importantly? I played on the line. I played intramural football throughout high school and college – always on the line, where I was a force to deal with. My waist is a 32, and I am not likely to ever be smaller than that. That is small – but not something likely to put me on target for a ~0.5 height to weight ratio typical of elite marathoners. So … I will always see myself as ‘big’.

I do not see myself as thin: part of weighing 375 pounds when I was 23 before I started losing weight is that there are remnants that will never fully go away. By remnants I mean ‘loose skin’. Yuk, I know. Also, having regained 50 pounds a couple of times and the 100 pounds I lost in 2012 means more ‘skin stretching time’. Basically at the top of my stomach I have a ‘six pack’, but by the bottom I have a small ‘spare tire’ that will never fully disappear. While I KNOW it is loose skin in my head, the ‘u r fat’ voices in there always manage to drown out that knowledge when I feel vulnerable.

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2013 Finish of PA Grand Canyon Marathon

So … I have a ‘Runner’s Body’, but I don’t.

And that is where the problem begins and ends – inside of my head. Because since I started running in 1989 I have been a runner – and I’ve had a runner’s body. And so do you. It might not be your ultimate goal weight or fitness level, and you might not have the arms or legs or butt or abs you would like. But you have a runner’s body.

Because you know what defines a runner’s body? The body that carries you through the miles of running.

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25 thoughts on “From the Archives: What Is A Runner’s Body?

  1. Thank you for reposting this! Some of the most talented runners I know don’t have the so called “runners body,” which was and is an awesome reminder for me when I’m tempted to let my own lingering body image issues mess with me. At the end of the day, a runners body is whatever lets me do what I love on a regular basis. No more no less 🙂

  2. Great post! I’ve learned some of this the hard way. I tried to have the “ideal” body and went about it the unhealthy way. Now I am OK with not having the ideal body if it means I am healthy and making progress. I’m faster than I’ve ever been and gained almost 8-10 lbs. and that is OK! I have accepted it and proud of where I have come from. Enjoy your vacation 🙂

    • I can tell you how great you look in the pictures you have posted recently, but it really doesn’t matter – all of that has to come from inside, and what is important is that you are thinking and choosing healthy and feeling good about yourself!

  3. What a great post! A lot of great runners do not have that classic body type we think of, running or spectating a marathon will tell you that! And there are many people who do have that body type and don’t run at all. Genetics and other factors determine general body type, and endurance running is more about the cardio and musculoskeletal systems – not really things we can see. Hope your vacation is going well 🙂

  4. I see two important points in this post. 1. The idea of a “runner’s body” isn’t based on reality because runners come in all shapes and sizes. I loved when Laura Fleshman recently posted non-flattering pictures of herself after her Oiselle runway pics went public. Her point was that the Oiselle pic wasn’t how she looks in regular life. She challenged other runners to post non-flattering pics and to celebrate the way we look, whether good or bad, because our bodies do so much for us by running. 2. Regarding self-image after losing weight…I also lost weight, though not nearly as much as you (only 35 pounds). Still, even three years later, it is sometimes difficult for me to see my body as it is, not how it used to be. It’s taken me a long time to love my body, which I do now for the most part, but some times the old critical, negative, internal voice speaks up and tries to make me feel bad about myself. It was only after I took a picture of myself wearing shorts that I realized I’m not too big to wear shorts anymore…and probably wasn’t to begin with. Still, sometimes it’s a struggle to beat that voice down and keep the positive talk going.

    • Great comment, Jennifer! And “for the most part” I think is about as good as we can manage, which is still pretty good!

      I love reading posts from runners who I think have ‘that body’ where they talk about being at races talking about checking out other runners with a ‘real’ runner’s body. It is a great reminder that it is all relative and we can only be the runner we are, and that we have just this one body and need to take care of it as best we can.

  5. This is such a perfect post because runners really do come in all shapes and sizes. I have running friends that “run” the gamut of sizes, tall, short, lean, chubby, etc but they are all serious runners. In relation to this, I have read a lot about “ideal racing weights”, etc, but I think that is really dependent on the person too because I have bigger friends that are way speedier than me even though I weight much less. So I guess what I’m saying is, a runners body and weight is all relative to that person and can’t be compared across a group of people.

    • Absolutely agree – and I think people can get too wrapped up around ‘ideal weights’ and make unhealthy choices as a result … dangerous territory with so many running bloggers seeming to have body weight and image issues to begin with!

  6. I think that if you ever want to see proof that there truly is no runner’s body, you just have to go to a marathon. Because those are the ultimate runners, right??? Well, there you will truly see all shapes, all sizes, all walks of life. You will see 90 lb and 250 lb people cross the finish line side by side, without ever once walking. Tall, short, it doesn’t matter. What makes a runner’s body is the heart, the training, and the strength within it!

    • Absolutely! And while I don’t think race distance makes a runner more ‘real’, the reality is most people can manage a 5K whereas you really need to actually train for a half or full marathon. So seeing people at those races in all shapes and sizes is a reminder of what it really means to be a runner.

  7. Love the loose skin. Doing the ab challenge this past month, I’ve spent more time in a plank position than probably the rest of my life leading up to this. Its been hotter than hell, so shirtless. Every now and again my eyes drift from the OH-SO-SLOWLY-MOVING stopwatch to down my abdomen, where gravity is giving me a great view of (A) how much loose skin there is and (B) around the sides of the wattle you can see the muscle and tone that would otherwise be visible.

    • Well, can’t say I “love the loose skin” … but I get what you’re saying 🙂 And in a rare shirtless pic at the pool yesterday, one comment as we looked at it was ‘look at your abs’, whereas I was looking at my loose skin … ugh! And yeah, the abs challenge really emphasized that – look forward to picking back up after vacation.

  8. I’m so glad you reported this. I often look at my lack of thigh gap and feel like a fraud runner, but I try not to be critical of these legs that have carried me so many miles and (mostly) do the hard work I ask of them. I’ve been smoked in races by people who look superficially less fit, so I’ve learned not to judge other runners by their appearance. So I really ought to quit judging myself for mine.

  9. This is a great post. It’s funny how different each individual person and body is. Unless you are an elite, emancipated runner….I doubt you look like one. I stopped judging people based on their body types, ect because you really just never know.

    • So true – I remember my first marathon passing ‘real runner bodies’ and getting blown past by people who were less fit looking than I even saw myself 🙂

  10. I wondered if you’d catch that! Honestly, I said it because I think it’s important for people to know that they don’t have to look a certain way to achieve their fitness goals! I’d love to (well, actually no, I wouldn’t – I’m happy with this me, now). But we don’t have to look a certain way to achieve our dreams! I live this post – spot in.

    Hope you are enjoying your vacation! The pics on IG have been so fun to see – especially since I’ll be there in a month!

    • Thanks Laura – I’m like the body image police or something, hate to see people putting themselves down in any way. And I think what you say “I’m happy with this me, now” is SO important!

      And yeah, yesterday was a bit tourist-y … but we had a blast!

  11. I use to show up at races and scout the competition and I would pick out people and say “I can tell they are good” based on their body. I quickly realized that it didn’t mean anything. Some of those people were almost dead last while others did do good. And then there would be guys I would of never picked to run good based on their body and they would crush the course. I guess that saying goes never judge a book by its cover. If you run I say you have a runners body

    • So true! And yet I think most of us still fall into the trap! Michele had a post on it a few weeks ago talking about ‘calf envy’ and many other people commented on judging themselves against the bodies of others at races.

  12. Your final statement says it all. It reminds me of an infographic I saw recently called steps to get a bikini body. There was only one step…put a bikini on your body. The end. 🙂 Like you I get told that I have a runner’s body a lot and it actually makes me a little uncomfortable because I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to mean. I just don’t like when people comment on my appearance/body type in general.

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