Readers’ Roundtable: What Does a Runner Look Like?

imageMy track team at West Point had an unofficial motto, “If you can haul it, you can have it!” As Army girls, we were required to do pushups, pullups, march with heavy rucksacks, and perform other physical tasks that most civilians in running programs didn’t have to do. All this work made us very strong, but also made us look very big and muscular. Standing on the starting line at competitions we always felt beefy compared to the other college runners. Our team captain, a sprinter who happened to be a multiple league champion, had a booty beyond compare. And since she could haul it, well, she certainly showed everyone that she could have it.

During the Boston Marathon, the announcers made much of statistics showing the top runners have grown shorter and lither through the years. Runners are tiny people?

I’m 5’2″. Over the years, I’ve had multiple people comment about how difficult it must be for me to keep up with people who have long legs. Have you ever heard someone say about someone else, “Shouldn’t she be smaller since she runs so much?”  Or the reverse, “Look how thin she is! She runs too much.”

Clearly there is some image people have in mind for what a runner looks like. What is it? Do you look like a runner?  

I have fun trying to sprint, enjoy long runs in the mountains, and everything in between. Former competitive runner (3 x marathon OTQ & trail marathon national champion) currently working through a lingering injury. I write about trying to stay competitive while raising young kids and moving into a new post-competitive stage.

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  1. It’s funny people think being short would make it hard to keep up. I’ve often heard that I totally have “a runner’s build”, I guess because I’m tall and relatively thin? And yet, when I ran cross country, I felt like most of the fastest girls were quite compactly built. I’m almost 5’10” and felt like a lumbering cow next to most of them! Also…every time I see a finish line video of myself, I internally lament that my boobs mean I’ll never look like a real runner. And yet, there I am, running. *head scratch*

  2. I always tell people that I don’t look like a typical runner – but what does that even mean? I don’t look like an Olympian, but then again, I don’t train like an Olympian either. I think it would do me some good to stop trying to look like anyone or anything other than myself.

  3. I have so many feelings about this question!!!

    1. While it’s true that anyone who runs is a runner and that there is so much variability and what a runner looks like because … duh … it can be anyone! BUT…

    2. Just like the top runners in Boston has become shorter and lighter through the years (statistically), not all of the top Boston runners are short and light. There’s some variability there. BUT, in general, they are short and light compared to the rest of us, just as basketball players are taller.

    3. This means that like basketball players are very tall, there are body characteristics shared by most fast runners. I am 5′ 4″ and muscular and often felt huge on the starting line. I totally felt what Parsley said about her college teammates!

    4. But that is true for the high-performance runners. I’m sure my muscular body is one of the things that holds me back from being at the top of the sport (among many things!) That’s cool. I am ok with that. I can still run really well, I just might not be able to win Boston or make an Olympic team or … win local races consistently. Oh well. Body type might matter at the margins, but otherwise who cares?

    5. On one hand, I hate this question. Does it reinforce stereotypes or feelings of discontent with our bodies? On the other, I think it’s good to talk it all out. I think most of us have struggled with body acceptance and what people say about “runner bodies” or what we think about how we, as runners, “should” look can be destructive without us even knowing it.


  4. I’ve been told that I’m not built like a runner. I have bigger boobs and I’m definitely heavier than most of my running friends. I started thinking maybe I just didn’t have the body type to be successful, but then I started using those comments to fuel my fire. I had to do a lot of positive self talk (why not me? etc). I’m happy to report that I BQed in my second marathon last fall.

  5. For those of us who fall on the recreational runner spectrum (from occasional jogger to competitive non-elite), I’ve seen all body types line up at races, hence, yes- any type can run. However, once you get into the elite spectrum, the whole “form follows function” rule takes more of an obvious effect, and the form that really functions the best for running becomes prevalent (usually light and lean.) I mean heck, go to a track meet and look at the drastically different body types at each event– sprinters looks different than jumpers and distance runners and shot-putters… Bodies that do each event the best cluster around a certain height/weight/muscularity as a result of specific training and a genetic predisposition.

    Trying to just look like an elite is sort of like trying to look like the air-brushed super models in the beauty magazines– super-elite runner women’s lives revolve around their training and often they have coaches and teams of people, from PTs to cooks, taking care of their bodies to get them to be the best at their sport. Models have make up artists and hair stylists using the most expensive makeup and skin care products making sure they look the hottest. I can’t compete with that, so I *try to accept myself where I am- easier said than done, of course.

    1. I think also that while it’s true that the top in the sport do have those things, they don’t have them to maintain a look. The purpose of an elite runner’s training and maintenance is 100% performance and not appearance. In a way, if someone’s goal is solely to look like an elite runner then the way to look that way is to not give 2-shits about how you look and focus 100% of your energy on performing your best – so basically, don’t bother running if your only goal is to look like a runner.

  6. Yes! I’m also 5’2 and get the same comment about being short. Although I have never gotten the “too thin” comment lol. Anyway I just say “Look at Desi Linden!” And there are lots of male marathon champions that are not so tall. I have seen short and tall people run fast and slow. Do the best with what you’ve got-that is my motto!