Worried that you look like a sweaty tomato cantering down the road when you go running? Join the club. Everyone looks terrible running and writer Leah Grant is no exception.

I was on the treadmill in our local gym when my husband first pointed out to me that I had, in his words, “a bit of a funny run”. He did a quick impression of Phoebe from Friends – arms and legs flailing wildly for anyone who hasn’t seen that now-legendary episode – and then moved off towards the rowing machines.    

Naturally, I assumed it was a joke, or at the very least, a massive over-exaggeration. Then, one busy evening at the gym, I was forced to use a treadmill that stood in front of a large full-length mirror and that’s when I realised, to my horror, that it was true. My right leg – which, incidentally, I’d broken when I was 10 – kicked back at an angle that was not in line with the rest of my body and it didn’t seem to matter how hard I tried to keep it straight, it remained intent on doing its own thing.

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Now, I’m fully aware that there are many highly successful athletes with unique running styles (British long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe and her bobbing head instantly comes to mind). But I’m not a world champion runner, and so finding out how my body moved when I ran, or how my face turned from lightly blushed to puce and stayed that way for a good hour post-workout, made me feel more than a little self-conscious. 

As a result, I started using a treadmill in the far corner of the gym, and I kept my head low as I moved between equipment.

It was during this time of hyperawareness that I started to feel insecure about my physique and my workout clothes too, eyeing other gym-goers with their fashionable leggings and matching vests and flat stomachs, and wondering why I didn’t look the same.

Leah got a shock when she watched herself run in a gym mirror, finding that her running style was similar to that of Phoebe from Friends

Soon, those comparisons weren’t just being made in the gym but online as well. I didn’t look like the women on Instagram who all seemed toned and glowing in their post-workout pics. I looked red and sweaty and quite frankly a bit of a mess. For a while, exercising felt like such an embarrassment that I was almost – almost – put off doing it at all.

I’m not the only person who has felt this way. According to a survey conducted by Nuffield Health, almost a third of Brits feel that social media is harmful rather than helpful when it comes to encouraging people to get fit, and a 2019 study from the Psychreg Journal of Psychology found that women’s perceptions of beauty, of their own body and on motivation to exercise were all negatively impacted by exposure to social media.

Considering the pressure so many of us feel to post ‘perfect’ images online, is it any wonder that looking at other people’s gym selfies or pictures of our favourite stars in their athleisure is putting us off pulling on our trainers in the first place? Or forcing us to exercise through fear and comparison?

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For me, things started to change when I took part in my first Parkrun. When my dad encouraged me to go with him to our local event, I felt a mixture of fear and excitement. I’d run 5K in the gym, but I was slow, and I wasn’t keen to demonstrate my unique running style in front of 500 other runners.

On the day, however, I was so caught up in the electric atmosphere, the thrill of the run and the rush of endorphins once I’d finished, any negative thoughts I’d had about my appearance were completely forgotten. I was ecstatic – not just to have taken part but to have finished, and most of all I was in awe of the body that had managed to carry me round a 5K running route before I’d even had my morning coffee.

Parkrun has allowed Leah (and many other runners) to run free from expectation or beauty standards.

Since that first Parkrun, I’ve ditched the gym completely in favour of the freedom of running outside and while there are days when pictures or videos of me in action do knock my confidence, I’ve found that running in public when I look my worst has become the greatest antidote to the pressure I feel to be perfect whenever I look at social media. 

The pride I feel in myself for completing a run – be that a quick jog around the park or a longer organised race – far outweighs any embarrassment I have over how I look when I’m doing it.

When I run (with no make-up, arms and legs all over the place and my hair tied back in a ponytail without so much as a brush pulled through it), I often feel at my best. That’s the only reminder I need that appearances both in real life and online can be deceptive.

Hard relate? Head over to the Strong Women Training Club for ways to feel stronger when you run.

Images: Getty/author’s own

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