A Runner's Body: The Unspoken Pressures

So it’s been in the running world a lot recently. Allie Kieffer, a professional marathon runner, has been one of the biggest spokeswomen. We’re talking about distance runners, the ones putting in more miles in a week than most put in in a year. We’re talking about the average female professional marathon runner: 5’ 4” and 109lbs. They are small. And there has been a lot of research showing that your racing weight impacts your running. Let’s be real if you’re severely overweight you’re not going to be running your fastest marathon time.

But we come to the issue. Women come in all shapes and sizes. We hear a lot about sports like dancing and gymnastics where females are encouraged to maintain a low weight. But there is some real pressure in the running world as well. I’m not going to sit here and write that your weight plays no effect, but should we put so much emphasis on this?

If I’m being honest, most people choose sports they are built for. You’re naturally at an advantage if your 6‘8” and lean to play basketball. Or lets say you’re a solid dude who can carry loads of weight, you’re probably going to be at an advantage for weightlifting or some sort of power sport. Then you have the long arms and lean torsos with those strong upper bodies-you know, the swimmers. Our bodies can help direct us to gifts and talents. But what about when we take it too far or we completely eliminate people based on their natural build.

As a 400m and 800m mid-distance sprinter in high school, I was built well for my events. I loved them. I was naturally pretty good at them and my long legs did their job. But as I developed as a runner and a human being, I feel in love with distance running. But the pressures with my natural build came as well. I’m nearly 5’ 10”. In the distance world I am way above average. Nearly 6 inches. Also with that height comes extra weight. Although I’m lean (between 12-14% body fat when I’m in peak shape), I’m 10-20 pounds more than the average marathon runner. I’m the height and weight of many male distance runners, but I don’t have the genetics of a males muscular system.

The truth is, many times I have people ask: are you nervous that you’re not like them? Then I say, what do you mean? Every time it’s about my build. I’m not quite as small. Forget that my stride length can actually be advantageous or that my body fat is just as low. Forget the fact I put in all the hard work, sleep, recovery, nutrition to reach this goal. Forget that I naturally have muscle-I’m just not as light.

I used to take this so personally. It defined me and took over my life for nearly 5 years when I struggled with eating disorders. But as I’ve grown as an individual it’s been some ammunition for me. And if you know me, you know I love breaking social norms. So now instead of letting it get to me, I use it to motivate me.

Because here’s the reality. We all come in different shapes and forms. What’s lean for one person may be impossible for another or detrimental. Also, let’s take a moment to recognize that the female world record holder for the marathon is Paula Radcliffe, who ran 2:15:25 (which is absolutely insane) is 5’ 8”. Bah. To all those haters out there that think tall girls can’t crush marathons: HAHA. If you see women running now, we’re freaking out with a 2:18! Just saying.

Also, ideal racing weight is different for every runner. I’ve learned when I dip much below 125 I’m toast. My body doesn’t want to be that thin. It starts going into starvation mode and my performance crashes. I love this quote from Allie Kiefer, she went to a nutritionist asking How can I lose weight? I need to be lighter. Her nutritionist asked Why do you need to lose weight? You’re already crazy fast right? Why change? Allie Kieffer is currently one of the top American Distance runners right now, and she weighs above the average weight for marathoners. She has run a marathon in 2:28. That’s FAST. If you saw her you would think she is super fit, but she’s not the average marathon runner. Allie is HEALTHY, FIT, and STRONG. Why force a body to fit something it’s not supposed to. She is doing everything right, by the books, and she’s killing it.

So as a woman who has struggled deeply with poor body image, I’m so motivated to prove people wrong. Also to stand up and speak out against those who say we must change.

If something ain’t broke, why fix it?

Now hear me out. There is nothing wrong with being 5’4” and 109lbs as long as your healthy, but it doesn’t mean there can’t be other shapes and sizes out there who can compete just as well. There’s a lot to be said about working hard. I mean adversity is what makes a good story good, right? I would much rather we take the time to recognize someone’s hard work rather than their body. And let’s celebrate when they break the norms. Let’s fight for what’s good. Let’s encourage each other rather than tear each other down by telling someone, you just weren’t made for this.

Victory isn’t given, it’s earned.

Jo ButlerComment