Struck by worrying conversations with fellow runners, Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi debunks the damaging myth of there being an ‘ideal’ weight or size to run. Here’s why a ‘good runner’ does not need to conform to any type of image.

I’ve been running for 20 years now, but just recently I was hit with a sentiment by someone I was out on a run with. They asked me whether I thought their current slow patch was down to putting on a little weight. It made me realise that it’s a rhetoric that’s still being supported by some running coaches and PTs in the online fitness community. And that may well be playing into the numerous reasons why women don’t feel welcome or encouraged to participate in one of my favourite forms of exercise.

Even I have recently started to wonder if tiny fluctuations in my own body size have played a role in how easy or hard simple run sessions feel.

“Make no bones about it, it’s absolutely untrue that you’ve got to be lean to run well,” says Harriet Le Seve, online coach and triathlete. “A ‘good runner’ does not need to conform to any type of weight, height or age category – simply because being a ‘good runner’ is a totally personal thing.”

While she admits that when we think of a runner, the immediate image that comes to mind is often a professional athlete. We might think of super-lean women like Laura Muir, the 29-year-old 1500m champion. Or Brigid Kosgei, the fastest marathoner in the world. Or perhaps Charlotte Arter who is the fastest female Parkrun runner in the UK. But, Le Seve stresses that image “only accounts for a miniscule percentage of people who actually run”.

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“Professional athletes aside, there really is no need to feel that you need to conform to a certain body standard when you run. Of course some might argue that if you have less weight to move, running will feel easier, but the counterargument to that is that if you have greater muscle mass on your body, you are going to be more powerful and more resistant to injury – even though you weigh more.”

Losing weight could slow you down

Even with a high body fat percentage, you can still be a fantastic runner, Le Seve says. “Plenty of people with bigger bodies run the London Marathon every year. Having a low scale weight is not a necessary prerequisite to being a good runner.”

In fact, losing weight can actually make running harder. And that’s because the key to running comfortably is fuelling well. If you lose weight, you’re consuming fewer calories – exactly the opposite of what your body needs to move faster.

“If you are training for a key race seriously, you need to recover as hard as you train. Part of this recovery lies in good nutrition, eating plenty of foods high in micronutrients and with the correct macronutrient split to benefit your training,” Le Seve explains.

And if you’re not prioritising eating well, you’re going to end up feeling lethargic as well as potentially recovering slower.

Is a lack of body diversity to blame?

So where have we got this idea of weight aligning with better runner from? It’s something I’ve heard over and over again from other female runners who blame their body size for runs feeling more difficult than usual. But my theory is that the lack of body diversity within the running community is possibly to blame. We often don’t see an array of bodies running in local parks or on canals, and that enforces this idea that you’ve got to look a certain way to perform well.

Le Seve agrees: “The running community without doubt is crying out for more body diversity. I think there are huge barriers to entry in the sport due to low confidence and worrying ‘what people will think’ if they see a person running who has a larger body.Running is a very public sport – it’s not really something you can do in the comfort of your own home before you are ready to go out and show the world.”

If we don’t see different types of bodies out there running, it’s no wonder we hold up unattainable body standards as the ideal.

If we don’t see different types of bodies out there running, it’s no wonder we hold up unattainable body standards as the ideal.

And while we might be clinging onto what we think a runner looks like, the reality is that most runners couldn’t give a damn what we look like. The community is full of evangelists who simply want to see more people enjoying the sport.

“Just look at the absolute running icon that is Bryony Gordon,” says Le Seve. “Bryony is an absolute breath of fresh air in the fitness world. She celebrates running for reasons other than weight loss and makes space for runners of all sizes. She is so evangelical about this, in fact, that she has run the London Marathon in her underwear several times in the spirit of inclusivity – she’s the best!”

How to practice body neutrality when it comes to running

So, how might we train hard and stay body neutral as a runner? Le Seve shares her top four tips.

Follow a running training program

Choose one with clear performance based goals – like your total mileage increasing by 10% each week or getting a Parkrun PB.

Try using affirmations

“Hand on heart, I say (out loud) ‘I love you body, I love you legs’ after every single run,” Le Seve admits. “It just reminds me that, no matter how the run went, I am grateful to have legs that can carry me and I do not take my body for granted. It also helps to quell the inner critic, who has far too much airtime otherwise.”

Remember, comparison is the thief of joy

Try to stay aware of comparing your body to other runners. “Don’t attach too much value to it, but simply let it wash over you, like a cool breeze. Take a few breaths to focus on your breathing, and try to come back to the present moment.”

Think of running as self-care

Your run, whether it’s a race or a morning jog, is something you get to do purely for yourself. Don’t let negative body image rob you of that freedom.

Images: Getty

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