Body Image

[Editor’s Note: This month, the Trail Sisters’s Gina Lucrezi is joined by guest columnist Krissy Moehl.]

From Gina:
Last Tuesday, Krissy Moehl and I were working our fast-twitch muscles at the Boulder High School track like we do almost every Tuesday. Even though ultras are run at a slower pace on average, it is still crucial to adapt your legs to an up-tempo speed. You never know when you’ll need that kick!

During a recovery lap before heading into our next 800-meter repeat, Krissy mentioned that she could feel her core muscles working intensely with each set. Though we both could detect the strength of our bodies, neither of us could flex hard enough to produce visible, ‘washboard’ abs.

“I like good food and beer too much.”

“I wonder if it has to do with intensity. A lot of our training and even racing are performed at 60 to 80% effort. Can you imagine if the bulk of our workouts were for speed, higher output, and shorter duration?”

“How would that morph our physiques, and would we like the outcome?”

These statements and questions triggered a conversation that would take over the remainder of our workout… and next few runs.

For those of you who don’t know Krissy and I, we aren’t the type to embark on an issue without coming up with some form of resolution or answer.

We arrived at three main points or areas of suggestion that we believe may have shaped our opinions and actions in training, and in life. These are: nutrition, strength, and, finally, body image. All three are closely related, which can be an excellent thing or a curse.

From Krissy:
For me, the key pieces in sustainably running these long distances are nutrition, strength, and recovery. How the first two affect body image has helped me change my view.

Nutrition. Less weight–less to carry–equals faster times. This is a belief that can send athletes spiraling into a dark whole of insufficiencies and injuries. I used to be guilty of falling into that hole. I would ignore my ravenous appetite in the hopes of shedding a few pounds before race day.

From Gina:
Like Krissy, at one point I was also under the influence of ‘less equals more.’ I had the bright idea that for every pound I lost, I would also drop five to seven seconds off of my time per mile. Obviously this was not true and seriously unhealthy. I took drastic measures in an attempt to get faster, and instead limited my potential.

From Krissy:
Now, I listen to my body and tune in to effective fueling strategies. I feel that the mindset that follows the lesser side is actually a farce. As I consciously fuel with more calorie-dense foods–for example, pouring 7Sources Oil on my morning concoction–I find that I can manage more mileage, my body is sated and actually leaner, and I recover from hard efforts and get back out doing what I love faster. Limiting fuel intake sends my body into conservation mode rather than burn mode. If my body knows that more fuel is on the way, and that I am not going to starve it, my metabolism is much faster. On the flip side, deprivation will slow down your metabolism and decrease energy levels.

From Gina:
When I was actively imposing ‘starvation mode,’ I remember wondering why I was not getting thinner… or why I wasn’t losing a larger amount of weight in a quicker time frame. If I didn’t put it in, I couldn’t pack it on… right? Wrong. Like Krissy mentioned, your body goes into survival mode when you limit your calories to an extreme degree. Instead, it will hold onto everything you put in, and store it as fat. Therefore, since I wasn’t fueling my body properly, it was feasting on muscle and storing the limited calories as fat (the slower-burning fuel). Not what I intended…

From Krissy:
During Gina and I’s recent high-mileage weekend, second dinner became mandatory, extra snacks on the run filled my pack and my belly allowing me to join her for a great weekend of final preparation for the IAU Trail World Championships. For me, I need to focus on the function and feeling in my body as opposed to what I look like.

From Gina:
Finding the optimum amount of fuel for your body takes some trial and error. You obviously want to make sure you are getting enough to provide energy and rebuild, but there is also a point of excessiveness. Krissy and I both spoke about our cases with undernourishment, but on the opposite end there are people who struggle with overeating and binging. There are all kinds of extremes when it comes to nutrition and diet, and unfortunately many people have experienced some part of this broad spectrum.

Strength. A healthy body is a strong body, and you need a strong body if you ever hope to get better at climbing mountain peaks or charging downhill. With solid fueling (EAT!) and regular training, building strength will come naturally. You will teach your body to understand the beating you apply day in and day out and, thus, your body will respond by building one hell of a tough temple.

From Krissy:
In addition to our endurance, functional strength is an important focus for running as well as for life. As it relates to body image, I’ve been told that I look strong and “nice legs” has become a joke in some circles, as perfect strangers seem to easily make the comment. The funny thing is, I used to be self-conscious about my legs, and hearing “looking strong” made me question if I was too big. This is all interpretation and noticing how these comments got in my head is a bit of a personal psyche experiment.

Now it boils down to function. Proper fueling and strengthening create the body that allows you to do what you love–whether running long in the mountains, surfing, climbing, cycling, or swimming–is the goal. Being comfortable in your body (the form that is created) and being thankful for what it allows you to do creates synergy, a comfortable acceptance.

From Gina:
Ironically, I would kill to be more muscular. Since my leap into ultrarunning, I’ve been so proud to grow my calves to the point where they don’t fit well in tall boots. Plus you get the bonus of having a strong, muscular butt. Maybe that is too much information, but I’ve never heard anyone complain about that side effect from their training.

But (speaking of butts), is there a point where a person can accumulate too much muscle? There was a point in my life where I was obsessed with getting big and strong… and I did. Although I could deadlift twice my body weight and then some, I wasn’t getting any faster on the trails. The muscular additions to my neck and shoulders only added extra weight to carry around. Like anything, I found that moderation is the key.

Now, I do a core- and leg-strengthening routine three to four times a week when I wake up. This form of strength training has definitely aided my performance and has created some noticeable changes in my physique, but without adding tons of extra muscle mass. It is about finding balance and developing the right amount of muscle (for your body) for perfect execution in your training or racing.

From Krissy:
I have found over the years of running ultras, my ability to endure long races and runs are more sustainable when my training is balanced by weights, yoga, kickboxing, climbing, swimming, and other activities that strengthen supporting muscles and prevent overuse injuries. I continue to work on how fuel and exercise make me feel and run, not how I look.

From Gina:
So we’ve talked about nutrition and strength, but the whopper (and cumulative result) is the effect of perceived body image.

If you read magazines or are active on social media, chances are you’ve been consciously (or subconsciously) influenced by the ideas or suggestions of marketing propaganda. Granted, there is some resourceful and honest information out there, but a large chunk exists just to sell an image or idea… and therefore a product.

I remember toeing the line at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and feeling like I didn’t belong. I didn’t look as tiny and lean as everyone else and felt like the largest girl at the event. I was ashamed and embarrassed.

I allowed outside influences to cloud my mind on how I was ‘supposed’ to look, instead of embracing the powerhouse of a body that I had. I didn’t need to have a ‘waify’ frame (nor was I supposed to) to run fast and strong. What I was born with and what I had created through hard training was my perfect vessel for success.

From Krissy:
Believing that I could run an ultra truly set in when I met “Big Steve” (Loitz). Working at the Seattle Running Company my senior year of college introduced me to my mentors that led me to the trails. I distinctly remember the day that Big Steve walked into the store. He easily heaved open the large, glass-pane door and stood in the doorway, scanning the store floor. The booming voice that bellowed from his six-plus-foot, gigantic frame first asked for one of the famous “Scotts” who also worked there. Then, as conversation quickly turns in the running-store setting, he asked my name and about my running. I told him about the pressure I was receiving from the guys in the store to run the Chuckanut 50k.

“I like the trails, but I don’t know if I can run that far; I’ve only run a half marathon,” I said.

He told me that if he could do it, I could do it. Running in college and with a few guys from the store as I first ventured on to the trails, my mind settled on a perceived runner frame: Lean, sinewy, gaunt in the face and shoulders, and well-defined legs. Steve’s height and bulky muscular frame was my first introduction to a different type of runner. From our gender, to height, to weight, to age, to body composition, Steve and I represent near opposite ends of the physical spectrum, yet we are both able to run and finish long-distance races. I love that! We see so many different body types crossing ultra finish lines that there is clearly no one body type that equals success. Running is for everyone and trail running seems to display that on a grand level.

Success does not mean crossing the finish line first; it means crossing the finish line. Hard work, dedicated training time, incorporating self-care, nutrition, and recovery allow anyone to run and complete an ultra. And the best part? At the finish line, no matter if one arrives in 23:59 or 47:59, we all share stories from the trail. Our experiences with the views we experienced and the trials endured by our bodies fill the space between. We relate because we cover distance, not because of what we do for work, what clothing covers our bodies, or what we look like.

From Gina:
This topic is obviously a bit sensitive, but is something that we should not be scared to explore. The sport of ultrarunning (let alone every-day life) coincides with nurturing your body, strengthening it, and embracing its natural shape and form. It is extremely easy to get off track (and it happens to everyone) but try to take a step back, look past the outside influences, and allow yourself to be accepting of your body. If you can achieve victory within, there is no telling the amount of success you will experience.

Call for Comments (from Gina)

  • This article was written by two females, so there is more focus on issues women encounter. Women, what do you think of the issues addressed here? Where are you at in your relationships with nutrition, strength, and body image?
  • I also want to hear what the guys think and how they feel about male-image expectations. Men, do you feel the need to look a certain way? From a male standpoint, how rampant are eating disorders?

There are 11 comments

  1. bronwyn_b

    Thank you so much for this article. I appreciate the candour and positivity Gina and Krissy expressed with regards to body size and shape. There's a big journey for both of them underlying the transition from undernourishment to strong, sustained athlete. I want to hear more about the space between those two places – this is something I struggle with quite a lot and while I realize the logic of boosting nutrition to sustain activity, there is something deep in me that is terrified to try. How do you switch from a "thinner = faster" mentality to a "function and sustain" mentality? How does a person who has been actively in the (physically and mentally exhausting!) former camp for decades move to the latter?

    1. GinaLucrezi

      Hey hey! To be honest, it is tough. That is why so many people have trouble switching gears. BUT, tough doesn't mean impossible! For me, I just realized I was going to get nowhere by mistreating my body, just to look thinner. It really didn't make me any faster because my body was tired…and on top of it, I was grumpy. It kind of sucks when you tell your self you can't eat, but really really want a beer and burger. I've been lucky to have some great friends help me through the tough times and keep me balanced. I'd tell you to seek someone you feel comfy with and ask for their help and positive reinforcement. Also…I think I'll be doing a "part two" on this topic for June…so stay tuned! Thanks for your support!

  2. VictwaW

    Loved this article. Also, I think "the form that is created" should be the title of a book about women, sport and body image. If anyone is looking to write a book.

    1. GinaLucrezi

      LOVE IT! That is a great idea! Now if we could only get a publisher to pick us up for book deal :) Thanks for your support!

  3. imheo

    Good discussion with regards to body image and running in general. There are some valuable points made.

    I believe professional athletes need to be careful and responsible when dicussing diet, and readers need to be cautious when using that advice from athletes that don't possess the academic background on the subject. There is much misinformation out there on diet and it's easy to find an athlete winning races that could not pass an elementry nutrition test. Although the statement below seems to just make sense, and certainly if you have depleted your glycogen stores and are starving yourself you will have less energy, the benefits touted of calorically dense oils, or that dieting will force the calories you take in turn to fat, or losing some weight before a race will necessarily affect your metabolism or energy levels is unsupported.

    " Like Krissy mentioned, your body goes into survival mode when you limit your calories to an extreme degree. Instead, it will hold onto everything you put in, and store it as fat."

    "As I consciously fuel with more calorie-dense foods–for example, pouring 7Sources Oil on my morning concoction–I find that I can manage more mileage, my body is sated and actually leaner, and I recover from hard efforts and get back out doing what I love faster. Limiting fuel intake sends my body into conservation mode rather than burn mode. If my body knows that more fuel is on the way, and that I am not going to starve it, my metabolism is much faster. On the flip side, deprivation will slow down your metabolism and decrease energy levels"

    1. GinaLucrezi

      Thanks so much for your comment! I hear where you are coming from and agree with some of your points. There are certain things we (as in athletes at any level) pick up along the way. Everybody's body is different and therefore will react a bit differently to extremes. I spent some time working in the Recovery/Sport Fitness Center at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs which is where I learned how/why I had to take care of my body.
      I do think people should take nutrition more seriously and really take some time to learn how to fuel their bodies correctly…and not just for sport, but for life. Thanks so much for reading, and for your support!

  4. @happytrailsrun

    Thank you so much for this article. I've been struggling with this for the last year and finally just let go of it a while back. My performance has increased and so has my well-being. These types of written pieces really help reiterate the fact that we should be proud of our strength and our strong looking bodies even though sometimes it's a foreign concept. I found once my mentality changed I looked at myself with more confidence in the mirror. And when I spoke up about it I realized I also wasn't alone! Thank you thank you thank you!

  5. evanreimondo

    Thanks for sharing your personal stories and insights, this is a topic that needs to be broached! I can say that men also struggle with the nutrition/weight-strength-body image issue, though it may manifest in different ways, they are the same basic pressures you both relate.

  6. bayleafmo

    This is a great article and one that I feel is long overdue. You just have to look at the women who take part in ultras to see that the range of body types is vast and seems to have little bearing on their placing at the end. I'm in my late twenties and looking at results of races it's more mature women who seem to perform better, it makes me so positive to think that trail running can be part of my life for the next 30 years! As long as I look after my body, so big up positive body image and also older runners!

  7. nbskis

    If your body does what you want it to do, there should be no other consideration. On race day I typically weigh about 150 at 6'1 and get comments from friend/family who I don't see very often that I "need to eat a cheeseburger" or something like that. I'd love to show them a picture of the massive meal I cook for myself every night, but I really don't give a a damn what they think because I'm in the perfect equilibrium of eating a very well rounded, high-calorie diet that gives me a ton of energy and keeps me thin.

  8. GinaLucrezi

    For those of you interested in more information surrounding metabolism and fatty acids, I've shared three links below. Both provide factual info on metabolism and it's affects, along with research on ingesting fatty acids and their effects.

    Metabolism: Chapter 15 Overview of Nutrition Therapy, bottom of page 343 – Starvation http://www.coursewareobjects.com/objects/evolve/E

    Fatty Acids and athletics: US National Library of Medicine and National Institute of Health http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17617998

    Potential side effects of consuming too much fatty acids: http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2013/oct/e

    Thanks so much for all of your support! At the very least, I hope this post will trigger more people to educate themselves on how to responsibly fuel and take care of their bodies.

Post Your Thoughts