Am I Going to Worry about Runner’s Face? Nope

Runner's face at lunch right after the Scotiabank Half Marathon in October 2105. Maybe I look 50, but I'm a happy 50!
Runner’s face at lunch right after the Scotiabank Half Marathon in October 2014. Maybe I look 50 (whatever that means), but I’m a happy-looking 50, runner’s face be damned!

Every week another article appears trying to warn of the perils of exercise. Last week I talked about that study that warned about the harms of “strenuous exercise,” where “strenuous” meant anything that makes you sweat or gets your heart beating fast.

The newest (to me) contribution to this fear-fest: runner’s face!  It’s not new news.  This article “Runner’s Beward: Crossing the Finish Line May Accelerate Fine Lines” with the sub-heading “Do You Have Runner’s Face” hit the press in 2011.

More recently and critically came this: “Runner’s Face: Beauty Advice Rears Its Ugly Head.”  It says that “fear of gauntness takes women away from the joys of running and back into prescriptive ideas about how they should look.”

So what’s runner face?  It’s defined as “the gaunt, skeletal look you end up with if you run for fun or fitness.”

Runner’s face generally occurs in both men and women ages 40-plus who exercise to improve their body, and in doing so end up with a hollow and bony face, explains board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Brian S. Glatt of Premier Plastic Surgery in New Jersey.

What causes it?

When exercising, an athlete burns off fat beneath the layers of his or her skin. This loss of fatty tissue results in a decrease of volume, which leads to a prominent appearance of the bones, forming of fine lines and a deepening of wrinkles. “Though you may look like a 20-year-old from the neck down, your face will easily give away your age,” he says.

Runners also often have wrinkles for reasons other than running. Many runners spend long hours outdoors without proper sun protection, so the wrinkles can be a result of sun exposure. Runners are also often people who have lost a lot of weight, so the wrinkles are from the skin that was previously filled with fat.

The whole thing is a pernicious and demoralizing bit of fear-mongering. Sam has written about bicycle face before, and also about cankles, camel toes, and muffin tops.  We have this horrible tendency to invent afflictions, these undesirable elements of the body, mostly in women.

This preoccupation puts the focus back on how we look and takes it off of how we feel. But as this author says, most runners aren’t focused on that anyway. She cites Alexandra Heminsley’s discussion of running face in her marathon memoir, Running Like a Girl:

Runner’s face features in the running myths section of the book and Heminsley sanely counsels a combination of sunscreen and not worrying about it. I’m training for a marathon at the moment and, to be honest, I’m more worried about whether I’ll get in enough long runs than I am about runner’s face. It’s an anxiety I think I can resist.

After all, I’ve looked in the mirror after a lot of long runs on warm days. Seeing yourself in several shades of sweaty scarlet can be a bit of a vanity killer – but who cares? After running for a few hours, I feel pretty marvellous. Oranges are entirely delicious, water is wonderful, chairs are genius inventions. The world is rosy, why not my cheeks? I wear sunscreen and a hat and I enjoy the time I spend outside.

Again and again I hear female runners say they tackle long distances because it makes them feel fantastic. Plenty of people start with ideas about weight loss – but I’ve never heard anyone say that the best thing about running a marathon is trimming down (or that the worst thing was losing weight from their cheeks). It’s glorious to discover that your legs can take you so far.

So yes, slap on some sunscreen. Wear a cap or a visor. The sun is bad for your skin for more serious reasons than wrinkles.  After that, see what amazing things your body can do.

I too am hardly thinking about runner’s face or wrinkles when I’m slogging it out on a long run or pushing myself on the sprint portions of a fartlek day.  It’s just not a huge priority when I’m astonishing myself with the sheer surprise of physical accomplishments I never dreamed of achieving.

And in any case, I take exception to the idea that while our bodies might look younger (whatever that means), our faces will “easily give away our age.” What does that even mean? The whole idea that we should be coy about our age, that the passage of time should not show on our bodies or faces, as if we had a painting in the attic that took all that on while we should enjoy eternal youth, annoys me. It’s an age-phobic attitude that denies rather than welcomes the inevitable. I always feel a bit sad when I see people who have made desperate, yet failed, attempts not to show signs of aging.

Given a choice between feeling energetic and youthful but (perhaps) appearing my age, on the one hand, or looking younger than my years at the expense of activities I love, on the other hand, I’ll take the wrinkles, thanks.  But I say “perhaps” because at least in my case I’m not looking particularly gaunt from running and the weight isn’t falling off with every step anyway. But if that should start to happen, so be it.


23 thoughts on “Am I Going to Worry about Runner’s Face? Nope

  1. I know all about Runner’s Face! It’s a proud syndrome LOL. So many girls and women are apparently put off exercise because it makes them hot and sweaty and “unfeminine”. My mum didn’t like swimming because she said it would mess her hair up.
    A senior manager at my last job forbade me to go running/to the gym on my break despite the fact I always showered afterwards, amid fears of me returning to my desk sweaty (my hair would still be damp).
    This directive didn’t apply to the men!
    We need to challenge the “horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow” idea of things.
    Thanks for posting. Well-done and Good Luck in your running!

  2. This is so silly. I have a slight wrinkle on my forehead that I think is from cringing over the years, likely from running and teaching kids outside. It bugged me at first, but honestly….I’ll take it. So silly!

  3. I had never heard of runner’s face before this post. Luckily, it didn’t strike fear in me….I will keep on running. As a personal trainer of over 10 years, I have never heard this as an excuse for not exercising.

  4. This will probably be the next thing my family will bring to my attention to try to show me that running is not good for you! Thank you for this blog. I had no ieda there was such a thing as runner’s face! I would rather have runner’s face than end up in a pshych ward somewhere! I need to run for my sanity! It is the only time I get by myself!

    1. I know what you mean. I also love it for the time-out factor. What would I do without that? People would really need to step out of the way!

  5. What new ridiculous beauty problem will they come up with next? Years of running and trampoline have also likely sped up my breast sag (sports bras can only do so much), but I consider it a fair trade for the opportunity to do things that make me feel amazing.

  6. Groan..runner’s face, bottom?
    If this should ever suck the joy out of running, or finishing a run..

  7. Great post. The enjoyment of running and the fact that I feel better and am more active that most women my age totally trumps any extra wrinkles I might accumulate. And when I consider how young my running friends look, I would say this is a myth anyway!

    1. I know, right? It’s just a made-up thing manufactured to create worry about! I don’t know anyone with runner’s face and I know lots of runners!

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