Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Strong is the new skinny

The other day someone I know referred to another runner as "Skeletor". They were not using this characterization as a compliment or referencing what Skeletor, He-man's arch nemesis, actually looks like:

They were using it to characterize a sickly, overly skinny, depleted, unhealthy look- much like a skeleton:


When this characterization was made and concerns voiced, I noticed an interesting and somewhat alarming emotion flicker across my consciousness: envy. For the briefest moment, I felt like being described that way (to my face) would be a compliment, a reflection of how hard I have been working in training. I immediately pulled myself up short. I wanted to slap myself around for even thinking such a thing. I had just finished up a killer good workout with 14 miles at marathon pace. During that run, I wasn't worrying that I should weigh less, I was powering along with strength, speed and levity. Why did that comment make feel self-conscious and envious? I knew I needed to seriously meditate on that question and not let an unhealthy attitude slide.

I have thought about it for several days now and have come to the conclusion that that thought comes from the crossroads where racing weight and body image collide. I have written about racing weight before, but I felt more thought was necessary because I am, in fact, at my "racing weight" (i.e. the weight at which I have run my fastest this year) and yet the comment still burrowed into my psyche.

Leading up to the Olympic Trials, I have been covering every detail, leaving nothing to chance and training like it is my job.  I've been absolutely devoted to the pursuit of my goals, working harder than ever and also managing to not become neurotic or overzealous. I am on what Nathan calls the "no fun diet", which is not a diet to lose weight mind you, but a diet to optimize my training and negotiate the pitfalls of having many dietary special needs. The diet also encourages having the right fuel at the right time and ensures that I have enough but not too much. I am doing all the right things to make sure my body is healthy, happy and able to do the incredibly hard work it needs to. 

The reality is, in order to lose any additional weight, I would have to be severely restrictive with my diet while trying to train at the highest and most intense level I have ever done. It would be unhealthy and I in turn, would become unhealthy and unable to do the work. Or get injured. Or get sick.

Running is a sport that prizes lightness and low body weight. It is not a sport that necessarily prizes positive body image or body confidence. The pursuit of race weight often takes on as much importance as the pursuit of the running goal itself. That is seriously out of whack. Getting to a certain weight won't inherently make you a better runner. In fact, racing weight should simply be a by product of hard training and a healthy diet. You have to fuel yourself to go fast, to do the work, to recover and make it to the start line healthy and ready to rumble. You shouldn't be trying to manipulate or dominating your body into doing something it doesn't want to, you should be cultivating it to encourage the growth and improvements. Being a "skeletor" is not something to be envied, it should be avoided at all costs. If you look unhealthy, it is likely that you are. I would never want to sabotage the efforts I make in training by depriving my body of the necessary fuel to hone it into the machine I want it to be. 

The comment, in hindsight, made me realize that I was still sub-consciously using weight as a yard stick of which to measure my progress by. I incorrectly thought that because I am working so hard that naturally I would become lighter. I gave that standard way to much credit. It stopped me from using comparative workout times as my standard of progress or seeing that my routine dropping of running partners was a sign that I am fit. Because, I am fit. That is for sure. 


I realized, upon reflection, that what needs work is my perspective, my body image and confidence. I have long struggled seeing myself "as a runner" since I have a completely different body type than your average female elite runner. According to a recent study, I am in fact 8 inches taller than my average competitor. I feel like Andre the giant lining up next to them. I should instead not compare myself to them. My hard work and dedication should instead fill me with confidence and empower me. 

I made a decision through this whole meditation. I am throwing out the old paradigm. I am making a choice to stop judging myself by the wrong measure. As my sister said recently, "perhaps I need to start embracing my body as powerful (and capable) instead of always worrying about how much I weigh". Being strong and healthy and capable are the proper values, these are the yardsticks. Strong is the new skinny. That is, the thing to be valued, pursued and held up as the ultimate motivator. 

My body is an amazing, powerful, strong machine and as I head into the last 23 days of training for the biggest racing stage of my life, I want to make sure I am doing everything to support that machine, continue to get stronger and faster, and to stay healthy. If anything, this whole conversation (in my head), has made me re-examine what my guiding values and beliefs are when it comes to my body and self-confidence and get my head on right. I love what my body can do. That is my yardstick. That is my value.

14 comments:

  1. Awwww Andre the giant was so awesome...

    Perhaps you should toss your scale (or put it away somewhere hidden) to force yourself to switch paradigms -- it is tough to shake the pre-programming. You know you're eating right, training hard, why weigh in?

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  2. Amazingly candid- thank you for your honesty and self-reflection! I think many of us struggle with that same reaction, and to hear how you pulled yourself through it is inspiring!

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  3. Danni- I love Andre the giant too. Interestingly, I don't actual weigh myself all that often (at the gym). I definitely try to stay away from frequent weigh ins because I know how great of weight fluctuations my body can go through in any given day, week, etc.

    Thanks guys!

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  4. This was a great post. It's actually really interesting to read it from you as food plays a significant role in your 'real' life too.

    Although there is an actual effect on your running of your weight (in terms of force per footfall), being strong has got to come into play too, in terms of power as well as recovery.

    I made my own decision last year that I'd rather be a more muscular runner than a really skinny one. That may slow me down but I equate that with endurance and the ability to run more and be able to recover. http://www.afhill.com/gothedistance/2011/02/type-of-runner/

    Obviously, you have a pretty damned big event you're working towards, so I'm sure anything you can do to perform at your best makes sense. I'd be really interested in know how you feel about this stuff in say, Feb. :-)

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  5. You are amazing! What an awesome post. (Made all the more awesome by including an Andre picture.)

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  6. Thanks for the great post. I think anyone who's ever gotten serious about their running, regardless of their level, has grappled with issues of weight and body image. It seems like the faster and more elite you are, the thinner the line becomes between a low weight that lets you race your best, and a low weight that ultimately will make you slower via sickness, fatigue and injury...

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  7. Where did you get the picture of me looking down at the scale? I for one definitely have been in worse shape and people were giving me the same looks and comments. The difference is that you are training and fueling your body properly and I was not. Your training and results are truly impressive and inspiring and make me aware of fueling my body. Thanks and if you know where I can pick up one of those live-in bakers that would be great too - as much as I like your baker can you make mine a female? Best of luck with the upcoming trials!

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  8. I've always felt that, if one is getting stronger, one may actually be getting heavier as muscle mass is more dense and heavier than fat (which is also a necessary fuel for running, btw). When I was training near 80-100 miles a week, I had a hard time keeping weight on. I ate everything in sight, and still couldn't keep an extra ounce on. I was working hard, running fast, and really having fun (particularly on race day - the harder the XC course, the better I performed).

    These days, I don't race - find all the organized runs way too expensive to enter, and I'd rather be out on the trail anyway. Even so, there's nothing like being fully fit, trained up and peaking at the exact right time - and being whippet thin is the least important aspect of it.

    That strong is the new skinny is long over due as a slogan for everyone. Move over Nike. I think we've found a new slogan for the massess.

    Run on, Devon, run on all...

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  9. Love that slogan and this post! Sometimes I worry that my legs are 12 times the size of most runners, but then I think about how strong my quads and hamstrings are. They carry me through tempos and long runs and track intervals and for that, I am thankful that they aren't stick thin! :)

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  10. This post was interestingly timed...I just finished reading a blog this morning by another Olympic Trials woman runner who realized that her lack of calories and "fuel" were starting to affect her faster runs. It took a little time to catch up to her but it's not too late for her.
    Strong is the new skinny, I love that. Strength is something that we need to work hard for, being skinny is easy. Just don't eat. Thanks for this post!

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  11. Instead of Andre the Giant, compare yourself to Gisele Bundchen or Heidi Klum, both tall, thin, and smart women at the top of their game. Good luck in Houston!

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  12. Best of luck at trials. I'll be rooting for you.

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  13. It is almost scary to read that you, the gal who by most definitions is as skinny as they get, think you are not skinny enough. What does it leave other "us" to think about ourselves? I mean, of course I am by far fitter and thinner (well, less fatter) than 90% of population, but if I ever decide to compare myself to runners...and of course, I (and 99.99% of the population) don't train for OT, but still, I kind of like(d) to run for fast(ish) times...You know, I think we, women, most of us who actually do sports (funny, but not so much in my experience of those who stay home on the couch) judge harshly ourselves (and usually not other women who are in sports). We are sick and thrive for perfection in our minds - and in our lives. Thanks for being honest, because at least I don't feel lonely feeling fat - even if I am obviously closer to Andre the Giant than you are:)

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  14. Love and hugs to you, Devon, for speaking your mind and jiving with all of ours.

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