Unlike Tracy I’ve never been drawn to the bodies of marathon runners. Not as aspirational bodies for myself nor am I attracted to them in the ways one appreciates the bodies of other people.
In her post, Is It True that Endurance Training Won’t Make You Thin and Lean Anymore Than Playing Basketball Will Make You Tall and Lanky? Tracy writes,
We’ve all seen those endurance athletes–the marathoners and triathletes. Thin and wiry, as lean as they come, with hardly any fat on their lithe bodies. And even those of us who don’t think we’ll ever look like that (or don’t aspire to be have that sinewy thin physique) have long thought that with enough training, we too might “lean out” to some degree.
Now I know that we don’t all get lean even when we do lots of endurance exercise. There are many plus sized endurance athletes who put in a lot of hours training and who remain well above average in size. See my posts on plus sized endurance athletes and on why plus sized athletes don’t all lose weight.
But returning to the stereotype of the endurance athlete, I have to say that “lean” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think of the stereotypical marathoner’s body. They don’t look lean to me. They look positively frail. Like spindly elves. I worry that they might fall and break and something. They look like they couldn’t lift very much.
In my post on CrossFit and women, I talked about how much I like the look of muscles. I wrote, “I love muscles, on me and on other women. Frail people have always made me a bit nervous. And for a long time, I associated skinny with frail. And yes, I know there are people who are naturally very thin, just like there are people who are naturally very large. And I know we can be beautiful and healthy at every size, but here I’m just stating a purely aesthetic preference. Make of it what you will.
So when I see the quote below from strength training coach Mark Rippetoe, I’m not offended. It makes me smile. Sorry if that puts me in the Bad Feminist corner but there it is. I’ll see you when my detention is over.
Rip: “You would look better if you gained about 10 lbs of muscle” Woman responds with look of utter horror.
Rip: “Trust me, I’ve been looking at women a long time, and I’m really good at it.”
– Wit and Wisdom of Mark Rippetoe, http://startingstrength.wikia.com”
I know this is just my own bias sneaking through. I know that all bodies, thin and fat, are good bodies. I know bodies come in lots of different shapes and sizes. I’m good with that. Really I am.
And being attractive to me needn’t be anyone’s goal. That’s what I think when some dude in a truck pulls up besides my bike and makes a comment about my weight. Sorry to disappoint but I’m not out here for your viewing pleasure. I also think “Hey, I’m out here exercising. That’s a good thing, right? Would you rather I were home watching television? ” You can’t please some people.
But back to me and thin people: I’ve never yelled “go eat a sandwich” at anyone. Not even in my head.
I’ve wondered at times where my anti-frail bias comes from. It’s true I admire tough and tumble sports like martial arts and rugby. And the athletes who compete in these sports are rarely thin people. I remember being struck at my first few triathlon events at how much more I liked the look of triathletes than the look of pure runners. The triathletes are more muscular and more resilient looking. It’s something about all that swimming (shoulders! ) and biking (quads and calves).
Is it an age related bias? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I like people who look robust. Men have the word “brawny” but there isn’t really a good descriptive word for larger, strong, athletic women. Think of the Williams sisters or of women rowers. It’s their power I admire.
I’ve thought of the thin look as a downside of endurance exercise. Now maybe that’s a case of sour grapes. I can run and bike a lot and never leave the land of overweight. I will never be mistaken for an endurance runner.
In recent years with the rise of CrossFit, images like the ones below have started making the rounds. With the slogan “strong is the new skinny” we’ve come to appreciate a larger, stronger female form.
Who looks more like a well rounded athlete to you, the wizened marathoner or the muscular sprinter?
The differences in the physical demands placed on sprinters vs. marathoners is explained here:
First, those photos are chosen just to make this point. Not all sprinters are so muscular. On the JK Conditioning blog, Jon-Erik Kawamoto writes “Notice how they never compare distance runners to Jeremy Wariner? He’s super lean and has run the third fastest 400-m in history: 43.45. He’s a sprinter, but because of his genetics, he doesn’t look like the sprinter pictured above.”
Second, it’s one thing to note that the very top athletes in a given sport share a certain physique, as Tracy talks about in her basketball post and I talk about in my women of CrossFit post, and another thing altogether to think that undertaking training in that sport will give you that body.
Cheryl, at happy is the new healthy, writes,
“What would it be like to exercise for a reason that’s got nothing to do with how our bodies look? We have this grand idea that if we start CrossFit we’ll look like a CrossFitter, or that if we start running, we’ll look like a runner. But CrossFit boxes celebrate the fact that they’re filled with all shapes and sizes. And go to any marathon and watch the people crossing the finish line and you’ll see that there are finishers who occupy a range of body sizes and types.”
Third, fear of ending up like a marathon elf shouldn’t put people off running.
In Building the Hybrid Athlete James Fell writes, “Think You Can’t Do Both Weightlifting And Cardio? Time To Get Out Of The Stone Age.”
To me, lifting and cardio never seemed like an “either/or” choice. They can be complementary, with both creating positive adaptations in physiology and psychology. I love both ends of the spectrum, and divide my time between cardio and weights based on what I feel like doing.
And while there can be some interference between them, it’s probably less than you think. At elite levels, marathoners don’t want to be jacked and powerlifters don’t want to risk losing any strength — but are you elite? What are your goals? Just how far can one go as a hybrid athlete?
In this piece Fell interviews Alex Aragon as an example of the hybrid athlete, someone who trains for both strength and endurance.
He describes Alex as “a prime example of how you can be good at both strength and endurance. His raw (no equipment) lifting PRs are: squat: 705, deadlift: 715, bench: 465. That’s pretty heavy. Also, he’s done two Ironman triathlons, and while the first “went horribly,” in the second he finished in under 13 hours, which is a pretty good time. He’s also run a 5K in 17:12 (very speedy) and, get this, can run a mile in a blistering 4:28.”
Fourth, you should do what you love, looks aside. In that same blog post, Kawamato writes, “Runners love running because they love to run, plain and simple. Most hate going to the gym and would rather run with a couple friends in the rain than spend 30-minutes pumping iron. They don’t mind that they don’t look like Captain America or Thor but mind setting new personal bests for their favourite race distances.”
So don’t let wanting a certain look be the reason you do one sport and not others. Basketball won’t make you tall, marathons don’t turn you into a lean, wiry person, and not everyone who does CrossFit, even very well, ends up looking like the finalists in the CrossFit games.
Whether your motivation is positive, I want to look like someone who does that sport, or negative as in my reaction to the bodies of top marathoners, it’s all kind of besides the point. Do what you love, aesthetics be damned.
8 thoughts on “Fear of frail? In which Sam pledges not to body shame skinny runners…”
Alex Viada of Complete Human Performance — http://www.completehumanperformance.com/coaches.html
Alan Aragon is a nutrition expert: http://alanaragon.com/
I think the “frail” projection is problematic. Lots of thin athletes are tough as nails.
Agree completely. I’m wondering where my associations come from. I’m not defending them.
Also, I know there are smaller, thinner people who are lots stronger than me.
I’m a lifelong outdoor-active person, and I only encountered gym culture deeply in the last few years. These absurd images about different kinds of runners (and the execrable “treadmill vs squats” images) feel instantly and obviously sexist to me. After centuries of prizing women for their delicacy and faintness, suddenly slim habitus is a cudgel to beat both men and women with. I find it especially aversive in the lifting culture, where it basically amounts to instructing women to “work for that booty,” as if we needed yet ANOTHER beauty standard.
So it may help to unpack a possible conflict of explicitly rejecting arbitrary beauty standards as the bullshit they are with the collateral damage of demeaning people who happen to look like that. This is pretty much the central challenge of communicating a respect for diversity or for body positivity across the board: sometimes it seems like only certain configurations are “diverse enough” 🙂
Excellent post! And BTW, I said I was hoping to get a bit leaner, not that I aspired to have the “marathoner’s” body! If there is an athletic body type I like, it’s the triathlete’s body, which is also lean but with quite a bit more muscle. I have to admit that it did shock me that I could do as much running and training as I do and not change my body composition at all (which seems to be the case with me). Luck for me, I’m not aspiring to any body at the moment other than one that will allow me to do the things I want to do for a good long time!
I no longer aspire to any body type. Too many years of desperately trying to make myself different.
I admit, I’m naturally average. I gain muscle easily. I have been strong. I could be again if I had the urge.
I hate to run. My body is the abut running body. Short legs, inflexible ankles.
I do practice yoga daily. Not for the look, but for the feel. Feeling myself stretch further. Stand steadier. Relax into it.
When you find something that brings joy in every movement, even hard ones, it is amazing.
I do occasionally look at the cyclists and runners and consider I maybe could do more cardio. Lean out a bit. But I’m fit enough to live comfortably in my body and I can run around with my kids. Being lean doesn’t feel like a positive personal goal for me anymore.
Very interesting, I think its important to find exercise that is enjoyable for you to do. So many people only do work outs to change their appearance.
I really enjoyed this post. I am a runner but no where near marathon runner and I am by no means built like the marathon runners. I’ve heard that people have a tendency to be drawn to activities that their bodies are more naturally built for,I think that could be true. Maybe that’s why people of each sport have a tendency to have certain builds… Maybe they were structured that way from the start but with less muscle developed. It’s very interesting to think about. I really appreciate that your post is encouraging acceptance of all body types and awareness that we are never going to and are never meant to all be forced into the same mold.
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