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  • Michelle Howell

My experience with running + body image

I've started this post a few times before, clearly not well. When it comes to running and weight and food it feels like a razor's edge. It's a topic that for a long time I wished my high school and to an extent, my college coaches had addressed. When a few of my own athletes pulled me aside to ask me these questions I found myself somewhat fumbling through my responses. So to make up for my lack of on the spot capabilities I'm hoping to better elaborate here and express my opinion as well as experience within the matter.


My relationship with my body image and food, like most people's, is not perfect. I would be doing you and myself a disservice if I stated I've never had issues with body image.

Coming from a sprinter background in high school I was always on the smaller side. While my competitors were muscley and defined, I lacked any form of upper body definition and my legs seemed like wispy twigs comparatively. It never occurred to me to try to actively lose weight to run faster when I was already on the smaller side for my event.

My perspective changed when I switched to the 800 and found myself turning into more of a distance runner. For the first time in my life, I started to feel like I was the big one on the start line (and not just from my height). I marveled at how thin these girls were and spent hours fixating on why that wasn't me. Why were my quads so big? Why were my hips so wide? Can you get rid of wide hips?? I'd fallen into a rabbit hole many runners go through- wanting to succeed on the track, tieing my self worth into my performances, seeing that the best runners looked a certain way and therein doing whatever I could to make my body look like theirs in order to reach my goals. At lunch, my friends would joke that I was eating bird food when I'd pull out my granola mix of the day. I monitored my weight, my goal was to get down to 116 lbs. A goal I accomplished from the 123-125 lbs I started with, already on the leaner side for my height.

On the track, I saw my times drop. I started the season at 2:18 and lowered my personal best to 2:09, so whatever I was doing was working right? To my dismay though my hips did not get narrower and I swear somehow my quads became even bigger. Then I went prom dress shopping and the illusion faded. I was standing in a beautiful dress my best friend had pulled- it had a deep neckline and back, a seafoam green number adorned with pearls and rhinestones. Despite how much I loved the dress the only thing I could focus on was my chest, more specifically all the bones of my rib cage that I could trace out perfectly in the fluorescent light of the dressing room. Then I looked my arms, they were thinner too than I remembered and my veins seemed to be popping out from under my skin in the same way my ribs were. I knew instantly I'd made a mistake, I'd under fueled or I'd overtrained either way something needed to change; this was not healthy.

The dark side of distance running

High school may have been the first, but it was not the last time I struggled with the balance of competing in athletics, body image, and nutrition. My first year of Division I athletics expanded upon my paranoia to be thinner as I lined up against people who made the high school girls I marveled at look thick with three c's.

While the rest of the world grapples with body image issues of its own, distance runners have an even more extreme ideal of what their bodies "should" look like. Sometimes referred to as the dark side of distance running is the underbelly where runners flirt with trying to be thinner in order to be fast or to "look more like a runner". It's easy to fall victim to when the ideals of distance runners set forth by the best in the world are, well, pretty tiny.

Over the years I've realized and seen first hand the effects of being too small can cost you; short term rewards (if that even happens) with long term potential deficits. I've also realized that the smallest person on the line isn't guaranteed to win. The things you can't see on a start line matter more. The training that persons put in, how they've fueled their journey, and how tough a competitor they are; things that arguably matter much, much more than the way they appear. I've learned and sought to educate myself on the topic from various sources and I was lucky enough to have access to resources, coaches, and support systems at the college level that helped guide me to where I am today.

Numbers on a scale

During my first year at Jacksonville, every few months a number on a scale was recorded, a ritual I soon learned to hate. I knew I was not in shape and I'd actively avoided the scale all summer terrified about what it would show. I was at my heaviest after an awful freshman year where I gained the more than just the fabled freshman fifteen from a mix of depression, lack of proper training, and access to a 24/7 all you can eat cafeteria with an unlimited meal plan at my disposal. My freshman year was the year I struggled the most with my body image to the point that the few times I put on my track uniform I would feel so uncomfortable with myself and the way I looked that my poor racing was almost certainly linked not only to poor coaching and injury cycle, but an absolute dread of having to compete looking and feeling the way I did. In turn, my self-worth which I had previously equated with how well I did on the track was also at an all-time low.

By the time I go to Jax, I'd also stopped caring so much about my performance though. I was debating what I even wanted out of running after that freshman year. A few times my parents even questioned whether or not I wanted to quit altogether and just move back home. My mindset had gotten so bad toward my body image that it was impacting my relationship with my now-husband. So at that point in time, I was just trying to stay afloat; get back to running and while I didn't like what I saw on that scale the first time, it was the least of my concerns.

My freshman year was a trainwreck and my sophomore year could easily be described as doing the bare minimum, I still wasn't quite back in love with running and unsure whether or not I wanted to continue being an athlete. I felt big still and like at my relationship with sporting my uniform my freshman year I'd stare at photos like the one above and absolutely hate what I saw.

The following year things changed. My body image improved after being surrounded by a team that prioritized health and performance over the way you looked. I had people to talk to who were going through similar issues. We had a very diverse group of girls in terms of body shape and size and slowly, but surely I learned to love the feeling of putting on my uniform again. I'd made friends and found relief in not feeling so alone with my issues. I also PR'ed that year still carrying several more numbers on the scale with me than I had in high school, proof in my mind that the numbers did not dictate success as I'd previously held as truth as a teenager as well as an affirmation I could get away with the lifestyle I was living; not eating a healthy diet, staying up way too late, and not putting in extra work outside of practice. I was seeing results so why do anything else? A line of thinking that I now cringe at a bit as I recall an especially late night capped off with some McDonalds the night before a meet - what the actual f was I thinking? I'd shifted from obsessing over and analyzing what I ate in order to maintain trying to reach an unreachable body goal to not giving my body the right nutrients it needed to run well and stay healthy.

Muscle + Fat

Eventually, we moved away from the standard electronic scale to a more advanced means of measuring our bodies. The kinesiology department received a bod pod that analyzed not just our overall weight, but our muscle and fat mass within a +/- 2 % accuracy. An egg-like device you sit in it, in essentially your skivvies complete with a swim cap if you were lucky enough to have long hair. As you're sitting enclosed in your egg you hear what you'd imagine a blood pressure cuff must sound like when being squeezed until a sharp singular pop signals your release from the egg and voila you're results are in.

We were studied over the course of the year analyzing the effects of distance training within female athletes. When we got our results, naturally as competitive teammates do, we compared ourselves to one another. A trend instantly became apparent, no matter the event, the best of our team had the least amount of body fat and proportionately higher muscle mass. A fact that shouldn't be too surprising. At the time, I was the second-best on the team behind a new recruit in my event who came in with a PR that bettered my own by a few milliseconds, but she was absolutely destroying me in workouts and it was very apparent even in those early speed sessions during cross country season that she had something I just didn't have. Part of that something was her body composition.

Her bod pod results were more in line with an elite athlete than mine. At the time I was still carrying around extra weight and it showed in my percentages.

A Study from the 2016 Rio Olympics showed that the American sprinters averaged a body fat percentage of 13% +/-3.6. Having less body fat is an advantage in a sport that revolves around the concept of moving your body from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's a fact of the sport you can't deny, the issue is that we've confused appearing skinny with being strong because as I mentioned earlier a race isn't determined by who weighs the least on a scale.

One portion of this issue is how one goes about trying to lose body fat mass. As I'd quickly realize part of the reason my teammate was better than me wasn't just because she had better percentages, it was her lifestyle outside of practice. This included her food choices, how she spent her free time, and all the little things you always hear people preaching, but often skip-preventative exercises, cross-training, stretching, the list goes on. In retrospect, being apart of this study was what made me start to realize not only nutrition and health for athletic advantages but sparked my love for cooking and a shift in my lifestyle.

Fueling for fitness

Taking the cue from her example things began to click. I started thinking more acutely about my food choices in relation to athletic performance. If I wanted to be a better athlete I needed to take my lifestyle as one more seriously aka not stay out until midnight the night before a meet and think McD's was a good fuel choice-again what the heck Michelle? I wanted every advantage I could get off the track in order to get better on it. During the same time frame, my collegiate coach went through a similar lifestyle change after receiving several stints in his heart and again our team culture shifted toward the promotion of a healthier overall diet for longterm success. We were assigned documentaries to watch on Netflix that summer as part of our training, we met with the nutritionist, and the kinesiology department to better understand foods related to our performance as well as our bod pod results.

Unlike in high school, I didn't restrict myself to bird food. This time around I wasn't focused on food to lose weight, I was focused on fueling to be fast, strong, and powerful something that can often get lost in the shuffle.

It's easy to fall over the line between making health-conscious food choices and being restrictive. In high school, I definitely fell under the restrictive spectrum. At the time I thought this was dieting, I thought I was doing the right thing, and I definitely didn't think I fell into any eating disorder category- I didn't throw up or binge. Restrictive eating, disordered eating, or whatever other names you'd like to assign it is just as interwoven into the dark side of distance running as weight and body image.

Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes and are more likely to occur in sports that emphasize leanness. A 2007 study found that 47% of elite female athletes experience eating disorders of some sort.

The lifestyle of an elite athlete

Placing an emphasis on eating well, my overall long term health, and making running the real priority in my life was hard at first. My absence from the dining hall was noticed as I started cooking almost entirely in my apartment, meal prepping and planning started to become part of my weekly schedule. I stopped going out to eat with friends multiple times a week at places most normal college-aged people go like good old cheap and dirty McD's, Steak-n-Shake and Chick-Fil-A (I still don't miss that).

Some of my friends and teammates didn't quite understand what I was doing, but then again they also weren't in the same box that I was/wanted to be in. I wanted to be better than I was and to quote Andrew Jackson "In order to have something you've never had, You must be willing to do something you've never done". I stopped staying up late and prioritized sleeping. I started living with teammates who were on the same wavelength; similar goals and lifestyles but maybe the most important piece was finally respecting my body for what it does for me, not just the way it looks.

If you're a serious athlete in any sport nutrition and the health of your body should be something you also take seriously. Just like with training there is no one size fits all formula.

The life of an elite athlete does not end after practice finishes, it's in the little things and choices you make the other twenty-two hours of the day.

Do your research + reach out

I think in a lot of ways I got lucky in regard to my athletic experience in college. Having the opportunity to work with the kinesiology department and be in a team culture that we had changed the trajectory of how I thought about my body.

What I've experienced may not be the same as what you have or will go through in your running career, but I hope that in some way if you take anything away from reading this it's that you realize:

I. you're not alone

II. appearance and numbers are not determinants of success

III. respect and treat your body the way it should be