Body image issues and ultra runners

During the Sinister 7 weekend, a friend and I were having a beer when he said something strange. He mentioned that if he was as lean as me he’d run much better. I said “Shut up! That’s how I feel about you!” We both thought we could lose 5-8 more pounds. The fact is we both don’t have any real weight to lose but when I look in the mirror I see a very different image than what others see. The rest of the weekend I went around having (sometimes awkward) conversations with fellow runners about weight loss and realized that nearly everyone I spoke with had most of the same issues. To be honest this is an issue I’ve been struggling with for awhile. When I think of ultra running I think of lean and efficient. However what happens when a runner gets carried away and loses too much? Dietician Samara Felesky-Hunt explained to me that endurance athletes face a serious dilemma when it comes to performance and nutrition. We simply think that cutting calories will lead to leaner bodies resulting in more efficient running. Felesky-Hunt warns that an endurance athlete’s performance is only equal to the quality of nutrients and sustainable amount of carbohydrates, proteins and fats a person takes in. When we become nutrient or source deficient the byproduct can appear in different forms. Injury to tissue when the depleted structures can no longer take the gruelling load we ask it to take. Recovery can be compromised when the rebound effect becomes delayed. Exhaustion during training can make high quality sessions nearly impossible. Even if those symptoms don’t give you a red flag, continuing to lose weight will conjure up more negative side effects that pertain to having a body fat percentage that is too low for a person’s health. That is exactly what happened to me in the fall of 2013.

I went to Samara with a large list of symptoms including irritability, mood swings, lack of energy, night sweats and many other symptoms. Samara asked me about my diet and was shocked to hear of how little I was eating. After simply increasing my intake and the addition of a few other nutrients my symptoms, one by one, disappeared. We concluded that I had fallen below 6 percent body fat at 150 lbs and that was a significant tipping point for me (FYI – I’m 5’11”). I’m happy to say I’m now sitting at a healthy 156 lbs.

But…the problem still persists. When I look in the mirror I see a very different me than what others see. Case in point: At the Blackfoot 100K, around the 95K mark I decided to take my shirt off (in an earlier post I explained why I love running topless) but knowing the finish line was shortly approaching and there would be plenty of spectators there with cameras, feeling embarrassed I put my shirt back on. When running I look down at my body with exaggerated eyes and see all the flopping and flipping of a guy that could afford to lose a few pounds but when I see pictures of myself at a distance I’m shocked to see myself and how skinny I’ve gotten. So, I guess you can say that this is a healing mechanism and shine on reality for me.

This post and the numerous conversations I’ve had since the Sinister 7 weekend brought me and others to realize that we probably are leaner and better looking than what we think. Leaner isn’t always better and we all have a tipping point. Accept compliments and believe them to be true as a distant eye (even if you just think they are being kind) has a wider lens than your own and simply start the discussion with your running community. I believe this is a much wider spread issue than what we make it and if I’ve learned anything about the ultra community, I’ve learned that it’s a very close knit group with shared experiences and goals that the support knows no end. The choice to run is something we can easily support so lets also not forget about the other health components that go along with our sport.

2 thoughts on “Body image issues and ultra runners

  1. Thanks for this post! It's timely for me as I struggle with this issue without a doubt. I know for a fact I could stand to lose a few pounds. Since transitioning from road running to these longer distances I have put on about 15lbs, some in muscle without a doubt but I know I could stand to lose a few but with such high caloric demands (aka hunger that never lets up) it is VERY hard to do. As you mentioned, I find it hard between getting enough calories and cutting a few back and I see a struggle with performance it workouts. It's a HARD balance to find. Perhaps I too should consult a dietician!

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