Body image, running, & me

Body image, running, & me

A long distance runner: long, lithesome, gazelle-like, the pinnacle of physical aesthetic fitness… Right?

WRONG. So very wrong.

Body image issues in the running community, especially those surrounding young women like myself, are something I feel very strongly about. While I am sure this will not be my only post on the topic, I would like to get my opinion and passion for the topic out there. The more strong runners in all shapes and sizes the merrier!

I have had the unique opportunity to step into the running scene in college with fresh and somewhat mature eyes. I was plopped right down smack in the middle of the CF (cluster f***) that is college running and body image issues. I was suddenly immersed in a new culture filled with antiquated stereotypes surrounding what it meant to “look like a runner”.

College is this unique kitchen sink of body image problems in the running world and non-running world alike. In the non-running world, you have the media and society portraying college-aged women as overtly sexual. One quick scroll through any college kid’s Instagram explore feed and I can prove this to you. Then in the running world, you have an over-abundance of ultra-lean runners setting the example of physique. Not to mention the plethora of fitness models promoting fitness regimes with the sole purpose of achieving an aesthetic look. See how this might get kind of confusing?

I would be really doing you and myself a disservice if I told you that I have never struggled with body image issues. I totally do! It is okay to not feel completely confident about the way you look, every second of every day. That’s just part of being human. It is no great unknown that I am a very small person. Topping out at a staggering 5’3″ and a very petite frame, I have always been one of the smallest people in the room at any given moment. Even not having started running until college, I had many people telling me I “looked like a runner” in high school. People are constantly commenting on my size.  With long-ish limbs, and my petite frame some might say I fit the “runner mold” pretty good. But if you think this makes me immune to body image issues, you are sorely mistaken. I struggled with disordered eating issues my freshman and sophomore years of high school, and while my problems were unrelated to achieving any sort of athletic performance or success, I can empathize with those suffering from similar unhealthy habits.

These personal experiences made my leap into the running world a little terrifying. I was suddenly confronted with the idea of “smaller is better” all over again. All around me, teammates and competitors were sacrificing their long term health just for some short-lived success in running. The scariest and most emaciated people I have ever seen in my life I saw on the starting line next to me. I saw some competitors achieve short-term success as a result of losing a lot of weight, only to never hear their names again because they were eternally out for injuries. It got me wondering, what had I gotten myself into?

It is true, I too have been tempted at times to go down this unhealthy rabbit hole in the name of success, but I’ve always found a way to refrain. While I am not perfect, and still have not completely nailed down my nutrition, but 3 years ago when I began my running journey I committed to treating myself right. I committed to not letting my history repeat itself, and to doing things the right way.

If I am able to be a successful runner, it is because I fueled my body properly and didn’t take any unnecessary shortcuts. It is because I respected the process.

I do not wish to repeat the mistakes of those that came before me, nor do I wish to give new life to the malicious thoughts that I silenced in high school. After 3.5 years of respecting the process, I have reached a level in my running career that I am proud of. I have earned 3 All-American honors and gotten to race against some of the best women in the country. But it took 3.5 years of patience, hard work, dedication, and a commitment to doing things the right way.

It took 3 years of being a nobody to become an almost somebody.

A few months ago I posted a side-by-side comparison photo of me from my first year of running to now. What I saw in myself when I posted this was all of the hard work I put in finally paying off, I saw my newfound strength. Here was a photo of me in some random race I don’t even remember, to me getting 2nd place at the Wisconsin Invite, runner-up to the eventual NCAA National Champion (congrats Ednah!). Here was me, conquering the crazy make-me-puke nerves that I had before this race started. Photo evidence of me conquering my fears and doubts. But what other people seemed to want to know was how did I lose so much weight? How can they lose weight? Some thought I looked “sexier” or “hotter” before, some preferred the after picture. Some went so far as to suggest that my bone structure changed, or that it wasn’t even the same person in both photos. This deeply saddened me, as I felt as though a lot of people missed the point I was trying to make, and I felt as though posting this photo may have been a mistake.

What the picture doesn’t show is the sacrifice, struggle, and hard work that happened between the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ shot. This picture does not tell you that I was previously a soccer player, and that after 3 years of running I developed more endurance muscles as opposed to explosive ones. It does not tell you that this transformation didn’t happen overnight, and that it took 3 years of a slow but healthy evolution. It doesn’t tell you how much more I can lift in the weight room now as opposed to then (I am up to 12 chin-ups in a row now!). It does not tell you that I was only a teenager in the first photo, but have matured to a young woman in the after photo.

It has been a mighty slow evolution to get to where I am today, and I am still a work in progress. With this photo, I do not want anyone out there to think that I am trying to promote a certain body type as a means of successful running. I think anyone can be a successful runner no matter what body type they have, and please do not compare yourself to me, or your teammates, or friends, or professional runners, or anyone for that matter.

If we want to be successful runners the only thing we should be concerned about having in common is a relentless work ethic, a commitment to long term health, and a passion for the sport.

If you find yourself struggling with the temptations to give into unhealthy habits in the name of success please reach out. I am more than willing to give advice to anyone who thinks they are struggling, or anyone who needs to be talked off the ledge of temptation. Let me and others be an example that you can still achieve great things without going to extreme measures to do so. Your happiness and overall health is more important than a few extra seconds off of your PR, I can promise you that much.

-xoxo, Grayson <3

27 thoughts on “Body image, running, & me”

  • Love this post soo much. I struggled endlessly in high school running with my body type, and I remember, as though it was yesterday, being teased by teammates about my chest size being the biggest on the team. I felt humiliated and angry at every picture of myself I saw (and still struggle to this day) and I feel so empowered to know that other people, with vastly different body types, can feel the same sort of frustration, and have found ways to work through it and become stronger

  • I used to think I’d be faster if I was smaller. All of the girls I train with are 3-5 inches shorter than me and at least 20 pounds smaller. I used to get sad that I wasn’t that small. I thought Id be faster. But I started busting my butt and now I can keep up with them. I am healthy and strong ! Not at my lowest weight. But I am faster than ever! Health comes first !!!! Thanks for posting this.

  • Hey! I have left a comment before about weight, “top 5”,and running as a HSer. Now I’ve noticed that in times of stress after a bad practice or a bad school day I’ll stuff my face and binge on foods I know aren’t good fuel to my body. Then I wake up the next day and I’m not hungry from the night before, so I wait longer until I am but the next week it happens again. Just wondering if there was anything you could do to help me. I realize you aren’t a counselor or anything but I just was wondering.

    • All I can do is say that it is worth it to stay strong and keep pushing past those times when you are tempted to take the short and easy way out. You can do this!

  • This is something that I so desperately needed to hear. I’m a high school freshman who’s been running since 7th grade, and I’ve struggled with disordered eating for the past 3 years. I lost 50 pounds from the time I was 11 years old to the time I was 12, and, though I’m back up to a healthy weight, I often use my running as an excuse to “get leaner and smaller”. Thank you for this post, it is so reassuring to hear from someone like you, who’s one of the best runners in the nation. You’re touching so many lives, young and old, through these posts.

  • I love this so much and really speaks to me. I’m a senior in high school. Three years ago I broke my hope while racing the 3200. I was on PR pace the first mile. At the first turn of my fifth lap I felt something weird in my hip. After two weeks of running in severe pain, my coach made me go to the doctor. It turned out that during that 3200 my IT band and hip flexor had ripped apart my iliac crest. I convinced myself I broke my hip because I was too fat. This was not true abut I believed it was. I slipped into a deep hole of disordered eating and extending the amount of time I needed to heal. Sometimes I still find myself in that dark place. But now I know I’m strong enough to realize that my weight is not an issue and I need to fuel my body. Thank you so much for addressing this! You’re a huge inspiration for me.

  • Like you I am a small person- a little over 5′ 2″. Since middle school people have made comments about my size, asking me if I have an eating problem. When I turn down candy or junk food they give me weird looks and say I could use the extra calories. I try to explain that I want to fill my body with meaningful calories. Still I feel as if I’m too small even though I often out eat the rest of my family(and we don’t kid about food). Little do these people know that now I weigh myself everyday to make sure that they’re not right. I’m small but that doesn’t mean I’m starving myself. And that doesn’t give other people the right to comment on my strong, healthy body. Remember, body shaming can happen to people of all sizes.

  • I’ve struggled with both not eating enough for years and bingeing on food almost every day. I’m SO glad you emphasized the tendency of losing weight “for short term success”. The terrible hole so many people (myself included) end up going down is that you do get faster…at first. You think you’re beating the system. You’re proving everyone wrong by getting faster without fueling enough…But sooner or later, stress fractures and other injuries pile up, and suddenly you’re on the sidelines proving exactly the opposite of what you hoped. I hope this comment can help anyone tempted! And thank you, Grayson, for sharing your story. I think too many people who are naturally smaller don’t share for fear of being judged as currently having an ED or not possibly ever having one, but body image struggles can exist no matter a person’s size!

  • Wow what a truly inspiring post. I hope many people get to see this and can take something away from it. Thanks for sharing!

  • I am so happy to have been able to read your story! I am a runner and am currently recovering from an eating disorder.. it’s been such a tough journey, especially now that I am strictly no longer allowed to run. Thank you for sharing your story. You are a great role model and can only dream to become such an amazing runner like you are!!

  • I’ve been looking for someone like you to share this. Recently I have been struggling after a year of being weight restored as when I was underweight I was one of the top runners in my state but then after spending the summer gaining weight and dealing with my ED I was injured for the rest of the year with a stress fracture, pulled hamstring, labral tear, and stress reactions. I find myself comparing myself to great runner I was when I was underweight and it makes me want to go back to that weight. Seeing other runners smaller than me is also difficult. I’m in the process of trying to gain the weight back that I’ve lost these past two months because of this kind of thinking but I’m really happy I found this post I needed it❤

  • I am 5 feet tall and likely will only grow an inch, maybe 2. As a runner I can definetely relate to the “You’re so tiny!” 24/7, you get frustrated after hearing it so much, and start to overthink it. It’s not something I can control, yet I continue to struggle with that barrier, the thought that I’m not as strong as another simply because of my image. During weights for example, the varsity boys saw that I had lifted more than this other girl, a junior and we’re all so shocked and amazed, yet I felt personally offended. I knew it was because of my small frame and I hate that I am not simply seen as strong and a hard worker. I’m a freshman in high school now but I started running half way through 7th grade. On another note, I admit to not eating well during a portion of eighth grade and regret all the progress I could’ve achieved had I eaten for the health of my body. I overthought a lot and believed I needed to be skinny to be fast. The team I joined were already conditioned and were what I thought was impossibly fast. I also played height as a major factor, ‘the taller kids were meant for this, not I’ and I hate that I thought that they were naturally born to run. Nowadays I view myself as strong, not skinny. We’ve incorporated weights and I feel like I can prove something to my past self. The grit I had to have to get where I am despite the challenges in my life outside of running empowers me to continue. To see where I can take myself and what I can achieve in my running. Thank you so much for reminding me that fueling my body correctly and maintaining my overall health is so much more important than what you look like in comparison to others.

    Ps. I strongly recommend reading “Run Fast, Eat Slow” by Shalane Flanagan, it provides a ton of nutritional delicious recipes and addresses the many aspects of running based on the type of fuel you are eating or not eating.

  • A much needed message for many of us, Grayson. I’ve struggled with some body image issues over the past couple of years. It seemed as if I turned 33 and everything in my body changed. I can’t eat everything in sight anymore, and when I try to, I can no longer avoid paying for it. My lightning-fast metabolism is a thing of the past, and it’s getting more and more difficult for me to run as much or as fast as I would like to. I find myself looking in the mirror and noticing my little gut and thinking, “Who does this belong to?” As a single guy, it makes me a bit self-conscious when it comes to talking to women. I imagine they’ll take one look at my aging body and walk away. But then all of my friends still call me thin and in-shape. Just goes to show you how distorted my self-image is.
    Anyway, nice post, and I hope your training is going well!

  • This is so true! As I runner I have struggled with body issues as well and I feel that a lot of people don’t understand that you don’t have to be “gazelle-like” to be a great runner or just athlete in general. I am bigger than all of the girls on my team yet I still perform just as well. For a while I worried that because I wasn’t as thin that I would never be good enough to compete at a higher level but now I am about to become a collegiate level athlete and continue the running career I never thought I would have or even be successful at! Thank you for writing this as it was something that needs to be said

  • I am so so happy this message is being spread further in the running community! As a senior distance runner for a (very) small Division 1 school, there was and is always an immense pressure to shrink myself to get a “runner’s body,” but what I got was short term success and a future plethora of physical and psychological health concerns. Like many, I am in the process of building myself as a better runner and overall better athlete while also taking genuine care of my body and learning to love it at the size it is at. It is a very hard process, BUT posts like these are SO helpful, encouraging, and IMPORTANT! Thank you so much for your message❤️

  • I do not see the problem with body type no matter what happens when you take up running you lose fat full stop. People being idotic with thinking being lean will help with running, without any food in your stomach you can’t run. Your can’t run without food, not everyone can make it running so don’t try to if you can’t.

  • Fantasiscally written Grayson! I dont want to much of your time of course but i feel im able to connect just because of some of our simularites. I too am at 5ft and since committing to competitive running I’ve struggled with accepting i will never have the long lean leg like my competitor, mine are more bulky heavier. Do you think this is just a case of time and training that my legs will become lighter and smaller or is this an indication that im simply not accept my body for what it is and what it can do? I recognise i should be grateful for my muscular build but i cant help but have these insecurity towards my body. Prehaps its my diet? Portion control? But how do i balance that with my athletic performance as running isnt my only sport?

  • This!! 👏🏼 I have never read anything more powerful than this about running! As I am still in high school, I still struggle with my own body image of being a runner. I often get told that I am “tiny” “thin” “too muscular” all because what? I love to sprint? This justifies that so many runners, whether you’re a sprinter or a long distance runner (I’m a little bit of both) you will get judged for what you look like. This made my hopes go higher for runners like us. Even through I still struggle with unhealthy habits (eating disorder) I still try my hardest. Thank you for this!

  • You story is so powerful! Thank you for reposting on IG. I was a sprinter and thrower in college and for 5 years after. At 5’4”, I wished I could’ve been leaner, similar to many of my long distance teammates. Took me a very long time to embrace my muscular frame. I’m simply not made to be a lithe running body, no matter how hard I was trying (and I dieted down and ran 8-12 miles a day at times trying to get there, only to be sick, tired, and often times, injured). Luckily I had a conditioning coach who helped me to stop punishing myself and start to strengthen, which led to a lot of success. I was made for quick speed and power. Our bodies are powerful; our minds more so. Reframing my purpose instead of my body type really helped me, as obviously it did you as well. Strength is beautiful!

  • I really enjoyed reading this! I love that you mentioned the age difference between photos too…”It does not tell you that I was only a teenager in the first photo, but have matured to a young woman in the after photo.” Because this is so important to remember when discussing eating and body image and body changes! From high school though college there are massive body changes…and then if a runner stopd competitive running there are often more body changes…. and then if a woman has children, MORE changes! I’m 29 and I feel like the last 15 years is a constant battle of accepting my body in its “new phase”. I’m sorry that the world has come to people making such quick and hurtful judgements based on pictures but glad you can use this to share your story in a positive way!

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