In the first part of this series, I discussed certain aspects of endurance athlete culture that may lead to injury, or worse, decreased enjoyment of the sport. This part focuses on a topic near and dear to my heart: body image and relationship to food. This is something that has affected me and my athletic career in an unwelcome recurrence that I’m still learning how to prevent. I may be biased, but I really think that this false inextricable tie between physical appearance and physical performance lends a dangerous undertow to the otherwise healthy fitness culture.
Somewhere along the line, we athletes are taught that the food we eat is attached to our training. You may have heard analogies such as “You wouldn’t put unleaded gasoline in a Ferrari” to explain that food is fuel and fueling must be intentional to perform your best. While I certainly don’t argue with that intentionality, creating rigid rules around diet can add gasoline to an already white-hot, Type A, perfectionist, flame. One way this is perpetuated is through the idea that running lets us “earn” our food. While tag lines such as “Will run for beer”, “Whine now, wine later”, or “Earn your Thanksgiving turkey”, are obviously funny and light-hearted, they are simply a jovial representation of a real problem in running and beyond. You don’t need to run a marathon to eat a cheeseburger. A speed workout isn’t the cost of a bowl of ice cream. If there is a certain food that brings you joy, eat it, no matter what those “you need to exercise for x many minutes to burn this off” charts say.
Next, as we scroll through our Facebook and Instagram feeds, we may notice only one kind of runner: thin, long-limbed, lean, and perhaps even predominantly white. For the PR-seeking weekend warrior, we may draw the conclusion that we need to look like them to run like them. Spoiler alert: that isn’t true. In fact, going against the grain of your own physiology will hinder your performance. Looking like them will not help you. You are you; you have unique needs. I think it’s astounding that there is still a culture behind weight and performance in running despite so much evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that weight does not determine performance and losing weight while training causes a decline in performance. Healthy and happy athletes perform better than those at their “race weight”. Pursuing a certain number puts a ceiling on a runner’s potential, swapping “good” for something that could be “great”. In a culture where social media rules, there likely is no stopping scrolling post after post of thin and lean professional athletes. It is the responsibility of every coach to look out for the well-being and culture of their team. High school and college coaches can impact so much more than just athletics, and they need to know when the intervention of a nutritionist or psychologist is warranted. It is baffling that many professional running groups don’t account for two of the most important aspects of physical performance. Why are athletes treated like they are no more than a heart, pair of lungs, and muscles? Why is the training considered most important when there are so many other factors at play?
Relationship to food can really become challenged in the face of injury. As a PT, I’ve witnessed (and experienced), time and time again, athletes restricting food and fervently cross training to avoid weight gain and maintain fitness. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), or the amount of calories the body utilizes at rest, actually increases during injury, 15-20% in the case of overuse and minor surgery, and up to 50% after major surgery. Denying your body the nutrients it needs to repair itself will prolong the injury process and undoubtedly lead to frustration.
How do we change this paradigm? How do we create a culture of exercising because we love our bodies, not because we hate them? It starts with how we relate to each other. We compliment each other on our intelligence, kindness, sense of humor, work ethic, charisma, strength, or resilience, not our bodies, clothes, and shoes. We cultivate joy outside of sport, striking a harmonic balance between the lifestyle we love and the lifestyle we need.
Keep going, you got this!
Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT
PS: I don’t have this all figured out either. I’ve certainly learned and unlearned a lot, though!