Running and Body Image: What Is a “Runner’s Body” Anyway?

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“You never can tell,” a co-worker said to me the other day.

We were standing at the water cooler engaging in the perfunctory “what did you do last weekend” chatter. I mentioned that I’d run a race of some sort, a 5k or 10k.

“You run?” he asked, a little too incredulously.

“Yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of short races all year to get auto entry into next year’s marathon,” I replied.

“Hmmn…You’re a runner,” he continued, voicing one of those slimy sentences that is neither absolute question nor statement. “It just shows, you never can tell.”

I looked down at my empty water bottle, thinking that the possibility of dying of thirst might be preferable to this tedium.

Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I do not have a physique similar to Kenyan marathon runners, or most American marathon runners, for that matter. Even after training for and running a half marathon, there are not one but two digits in my dress size. But yes, I run.

There’s an odd thing that happens when you tell someone – be it your mother, an old friend, or a new co-worker – that you’ve been running. They place immediate expectations on your body. They may feel the need to inquire as to your regular distances and speeds. They might say something like: “Wow, that’s great; I couldn’t do that,” as if you’re some sort of special Olympian, rather than a curvy chick who likes both her miles and her mimosas.

The other day, an older friend asked me if I’d ever experienced the “runner’s high.” A regular exerciser but not a runner, this friend seems to grant the “runner’s high” the same sort of mythic position that others might give to simultaneous orgasm or female ejaculation. I replied that no, I really hadn’t, neglecting to mention a time when I’d felt uncomfortably on the verge of orgasm for the last two miles of six. Like a teenager unsure of that “feeling,” I couldn’t discern whether this was the much-vaunted “runner’s high” or simply some aggressive nipple rubbing on the part of an ill-fitting sports bra. Either way, I can’t say I really enjoyed feeling that tingle as I jogged around my local park.

What I do enjoy is another kind of high I get, anytime I have a run that’s not terribly marred by shin splints, a hangover, iPod technical issues, and the like. A chorus of “you-never-can-tells” resounds inside my head, an echo chamber of all those who’ve ever doubted my ability to run an eight-minute mile, finish a half marathon, or do much of anything in my almost 30 years. My feet hit the ground in rapid succession, over and over, mile after mile, and eventually, they drown out the noise. In perfect percussive harmony, they defend me by chanting: “Fuck-you, fuck-you, fuck-you, fuck-you, fuck-you, fuck-you, fuck-you.”

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    • Vicky

      what??? who says that? People really do surprise me. I think the whole health/fitness/drive to thin craze thru the city has really perpetuated this rigid ‘black and white’ approach to health and wellness, where theres a runner type, jogger type, biker type, unfit, fit. Hopefully when the fad wears off people will be able to appreciate the balanced grey of ‘miles and mimosas’. I was in NY where a restaurant glass wall reads ‘Eat Right, Exercise, Die anyway’. It’s not nihilstic, just realistic. I say, more power to you! Keep running and having fun!

    • Dominique

      I hear ya. When I first started running I actually put on weight! Add in that I am not a natural runner and really had to work at it, comments like that could have easily stopped me. But everyday I would run a little further or up a hill and I realized what my body was capable of even with a little extra junk in my trunk.

    • manateejax

      People’s goals for running vary and as I’ve asked fellow runners why they do it, weight is not usually at the top of the list. Set your goal and just go for it, forget what “everyone” (who aren’t runners) say.

    • CurlySarah

      I started running last year – I hated it, but couldn’t stop… but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten runners’ high. I have a friend who says she always gets it, but most of my other runner friends have never gotten it. A trainer friend of mine thinks that most people confuse the feeling of accomplishment with the high. Who knows. What I do know is that running definitely did change my body. I’ve always watched my weight/been slim, but my body shape and muscles changed when I started running. I also got shin splints, awful hip injuries and other runners’ ailments. I’ve put running on the back-burner and picked up biking at the gym during the winter, but I plan to pick up running again in Spring.

    • Jen

      Ha! That last sentence made me laugh out loud. Heh… I’m gonna be hearing that “fuck-you, fuck-you, fuck-you,” to the beat of my footsteps tomorrow morning. I just started running and I’m still at that point where I’m just continually amazed that I’m DOING it, I’m really DOING it! And I don’t know if I’ve felt the runner’s high, but at some point about 15 minutes into it when the sweat breaks I usually find myself grinning. That feels pretty good.