Running and the Body Image Blues

Lately, I’ve found myself more concerned with how my body looks than what it can do and it makes me sad.

Recently, I had a flare up of body image blues. Normally running helps me manage the menacing inner voice that tells me I am not enough. “The Voice” tells me to engage in destructive eating and exercise patterns for the sole purpose of making my body look better. I’m sure it has something to do with my recent struggles with injury and a move across the ocean leaving me less-equipped to tell The Voice to zip it.

Despite my progress coming back from my stress fracture, solid workouts and logging steady mileage for the first time in months, The Voice has been loudly telling me I am worthless. As one would expect, my pace during this recovery period has been on the slow side, but The Voice tells me I will never get faster so why bother training to perform. The Voice tells me, instead, to work on getting “fitter.” At best, The Voice reminds me that I am below average. At worst, it tells me I am disgusting.

As a person who is in constant recovery from an eating disorder, I should have recognized the thought patterns and sought support right away, but I didn’t. 

One Monday night I was scrolling through Instagram and somehow I stumbled upon this lady, an Australian personal trainer who has developed an exercise and weight loss program that includes an app. After studying a few “transformation photos” on her Instagram feed (RED FLAG #1), I convinced myself that the app was exactly what I needed, a new exercise regimen with a focus on strength training multiple times a week.

Soon I was in my iTunes store purchasing the app (RED FLAG #2). After all, there was a free seven-day trial, and that should be enough, right? I began using the app in addition to my keeping up my weekly mileage. The app provided a meal plan, timed workouts, a space to take transformational photos, and the exciting possibility of having my food intake and exercise regimen literally at my fingertips 24/7 (RED FLAG #3).

While The Voice was telling me the app would be good for me, my subconscious fought back a little by making me wonder if the app would be good for a runner’s lifestyle. I examined the aspects of the program and weighed the pros and cons and whether or not they would work to improve my running. I considered whether the app was worth the money for distance runners who have already established a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Thankfully, I turned to my Salty sisters for advice. Initially I asked them whether they thought the app would be beneficial to my running. They saw through me and instead of critiquing the app, they spoke to me.

Here are some nuggets of wisdom from our conversation:

Cilantro: “Strength train if you want to be stronger but not because you want to look different.”

Salty: “If by pursuing your life’s goals you get a hot body, yeah! But a hot body is not worth pursuing for its own sake.”

Tea: “My worth is not tied to weight and, hello, we all need a break and time to chill out. Life happens, so enjoy whatever moment you’re in!”

Pimento: “My mantra is ‘form follows function.’ If I focus on how my body is functioning and try to get it to the level of functioning that I want for running, what it looks like becomes completely secondary.”

Pumpkin: “What helps me through the hard times is ‘Does my body allow me to do the things I want to do’ rather than focus on how it appears. When I focus less on appearance and more on being strong and capable I feel much more awesome.”

Paprika: “Life it too short not to eat fries with your burger after a hard workout.”

My friends helped me realize I was attracted to the app for all the wrong reasons. Why was I so eager to trade in my balanced runner life for the promise of a “bikini body” from some stupid app on my phone? I am a runner and I take pride in the hard work I’ve done to make running such a big part of my identity. Running helps me maintain balance and as I have mentioned before, this relationship with distance has healed me and protected me from the ugliest part of myself, but, as I learned, it has not cured me.

When I run to run, to perform, with a purpose other than changing the appearance of my body, then running can be my meditation, my therapy, and one of my best friends and greatest loves. Running to perform helps me maintain healthy boundaries like how it makes me organize my weekends (ahem, alcohol consumption) around my long runs and encourages me to mindfully nourish my body. I strengthen my body based upon my running needs and I allow myself to rest when I need to heal. I have worked so hard to get to this point in loving my body and myself and I felt so embarrassed by my brief obsession with this dumb app on my phone.

If you are having a bad body image day, week, or even month, I hope you have friends like mine who can help remind you that you are good enough. If you find yourself fixated on some app or “fitness” program because you want to change the way your body looks, like I was, please know that an app, a fitness program, or even the abs you wish you had do not deliver happiness, fulfillment, or joy. You will not find a companion in an app, a support system in a circuit, a sisterhood in a sculpted oblique. Running is more than a practice or a hobby or a training log. Running has the potential to take you to the most beautiful places and the most victorious moments. Running can bring you the most compassionate friends, that support system you need, and that sisterhood that makes life great.

Step away from the mirror, put down the phone, and slip on your running shoes. Just stand in them for a minute to reflect on what running gives you.

Who do you turn to when the body image blues flare up? How do you conquer The Voice?

I'm a student of law and life. A Jill of all trades, master of none. But I'm hoping to master something, sometime. ;) Preferably a sub-23 5k and a sub-4 marathon!

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  1. Thank you so much for this amazing post. It takes a ton of strength to reach out like you did, instead of letting the voice dictate your actions.

  2. I hate before/after photos! They are often SO manipulated.

    Wonder if you’re noticing more body comments in Spain? When I was there (13 years ago…) people easily tossed around the word “gordita.” Even when it’s not directed at you, it’s easy to let it filter into your mind!

    Wonderful piece. <3

    1. The Spaniards do comment on appearance a lot, but it’s always positive! “Guapa” is the new “gordita.” 🙂 Thank God haha. Thank you! 🙂

      1. Glad to hear that! We heard so much gordita and even though it was usually in an affectionate manner it still just didn’t sound quite right to me. Guapa is nice! I also got a lot of rubia.

  3. I know exactly the app you mean. I read an article about it and checked out the instagram feed, and found myself mesmerized (and not in a good way) by all those transformation photos. I don’t even have body image issues, and it made me feel badly about myself! Good for you for recognizing your negative thought patterns and reaching out to your friends for help. Those before/after photos are not reality and are not something to aspire to!

  4. Thank you for writing this! I feel like I could have written this myself today. My injury was last fall, minor detail. I actually untagged myself from a race photo yesterday (a race where I did really well) because I didn’t like the way I looked. Just admitting I did this is so embarrassing, but that’s what happened. This morning I was actually googling strength training and looking for personal trainers,and briefly was considering 3x a week before I realized I love running too much to cut back at all. ED recovery is tricky…

    1. I completely understand! I try not to untag myself from any photos, but on a bad day sometimes the temptation gets the best of us. Stay strong, friend!

  5. Thank you Bergie! Helpful for me as I’ve been battling my own demons lately with pregnancy and recovery…helps to know we have each other through this journey. Love you!

  6. My good friend sent me your link and my eyes are teary after reading this post. I struggle with accepting how I look. I am coming off a knee injury and I am frustrated with my running progress. I think with the warm weather, it makes it more difficult to tell ‘the voice’ to shove it. It’s too loud and ugly right now. I hope one day to get to were you are.

    1. Sending only the best of vibes your way! The transition to spring is tough for so many reasons. Be patient with your body and treat yourself! I’m struggling right now not to pick up too much mileage too quickly. I have to tell myself that’s probably how I became injured in the first place! Slow and steady. 🙂

  7. I so feel all of this, it really is like constant recovery once you’ve gone through an eating disorder- and being aware of my triggers/red flags/little things that lead back to that place is so important. As is reaching out like you did for some perspective from friends who understand. You’re beautiful!!

    1. Thanks for all the support and encouragement, Pimento! 🙂 And congrats on your 100 mile week! I need to focus on my own function so I can get there too. What an inspiration!

  8. I just reread this for the 30th time and that second to last paragraph brought a tear to my eye … again. I love this post. I love how we could all help a sister out. I love that it’s so honest and raw and speaks to us all. Bravo, Bergie! BRAVO!

  9. Great post and I relate 1000%!! I feel like Instagram and the “fitspo” (gag at that word) accounts make me feel really terrible about myself. I’ll look at a person’s picture and think “man, maybe I should go on a cleanse/do more core work/try Pilates too!” I have to remember that there’s a ton of filtering and posing, and that my body does a lot more than look cute for selfies.