A Cross-Country Runner’s Real Confession About Body Image

One college runner shares her struggle with body image and what she hopes every young runner will learn sooner rather than later.

Paul Yates / Shutterstock, Inc.
Paul Yates / Shutterstock, Inc.

What do you think about your body? I mean really think about it? Do you treasure its ability to run miles on end? Do you value its resilience? Your body is your greatest creative expression and it will carry you many miles in your lifetime. However, as a slightly-older, slightly-wiser runner, I feel compelled to impart some wisdom. As your body grows strong and fast, you’ll be tempted to lose sight of how amazing it is. Sadly, you probably already are. And I’m sorry because know how confusing and destructive that can be. I know because I’ve been there.

I don’t remember the day I started feeling bad about my body, but I do remember seeing the difference between how I looked and how elite distance runners looked. Most were extremely thin and insanely fast. I, on the other hand, felt pretty darn average. I told my friends I wouldn’t run with my shirt off because I was being modest. Truthfully: I just hated my stomach. I figured that I could fix my bad body image by “fixing” my body. But bad body image brings a whole slew of problems, and before I knew it, I was neck deep in an eating disorder. Now, don’t freak out. I’m not saying this happens to everyone who struggles with body image. Here’s what I am saying: Your body image is yours to define. I let mine be hijacked, buying into the lie that a successful runner has to look a specific way. But that’s just not true. You will run fastest and have the most happiness, when you embrace the body you’ve been given.

But let’s be honest: That’s a little difficult. Your young mind is oversaturated with images of seemingly perfect female athletes. So I’m going to let you in on a little secret. No one—not even Shalane Flanagan and her abs of steel—has or can have the perfect runner’s body. No one. That means that no matter how many miles you run and kale salads you eat, you’ll never reach a state of perfection. It doesn’t exist. Not only is there no perfect body, there’s also no specific “runner’s body.” The growing diversity in elite distance running shows that. And when I see runners like Rachele Schulist stand up for healthy body image, I am encouraged. They are breaking barriers so you can soar.

My hope is that you will love your body more every year of your life. My hope is that you will own your body image and not let it be distorted by another. Once you strip away the comparisons and expectations, you will see how incredible your body is.

So let it sprint up hills and charge across finish lines. Let your body rest, recharge and relentlessly pursue greatness. It is a runner’s body because you are a runner. It is beautiful because you are beautiful. And you have many wonderful miles ahead of you.