The Dark Side of Running
I have always loved running. From the moment I ran my first cross-country race in middle school, I was hooked. I enjoyed hanging with my teammates, grinding through difficult workouts, and competing in races. All the way through high school, I saw only the good that running had to offer.
Then, I got to college, and the unfortunate dark side of running was revealed to me. At first, I made a few small observations. Then, I was bombarded with information that I could only wish wasn’t true.
The pressure and intensity placed upon sports is high. Humans are competitive by nature, and many people are willing to do whatever it takes to win. When you reach the highest level in your sport, you are forced to go up against the best of the best. In order to be ready to take on your competitors, you have to train incredibly hard.
For most runners, that shift happens when transitioning from high school to college. My switch to collegiate training involved upping my mileage and doing tougher and longer workouts. The end goal, of course, was to race faster.
I’ll admit, it’s hard to stand out as a freshman among the seasoned collegiate runners who have been accustomed to this environment for years.
But, you don’t need to rush the process. Even in high school, I wasn’t the top runner on my team. I never felt like less of an athlete because of it though. I focused on doing what I needed to do to improve — recover on my easy days, perform better in workouts, minimize stress, eat healthy, and sleep a lot. I knew success would come eventually.
I followed the same healthy approach when I got to college, and saw gradual improvements each year. Unfortunately, others did not.
In college, I started to become aware of the fixation many runners had on getting skinnier so that they could run faster.
I even had friends who believed that eating far less than their bodies needed was the way to find success, and although I tried, I was unable to help them see the light.
Furthermore, some coaches did not help the situation. I heard horror stories of athletes being weighed to achieve a certain physique, and starving their bodies in order to shave a few seconds off when they raced.
It wasn’t uncommon for me to line up on the starting line in college and be surrounded by girls who were malnourished.
Then, the story of Mary Cain came out, and more awareness was brought to the issue of body image in sports. Even someone like me, who has competed in running at a high level, was a little shocked to find out that this was going on in the professional world of running, and that a well-known coach was abusing his power.
Today, I look back on my collegiate experience and I am so grateful that I had wonderful coaches who preached the importance of fueling your body rather than starving it.
I was one of the fortunate ones who maintained a healthy relationship with food throughout college, improved each year, and came away without injuries.
Many others are not so lucky. They are taught from a young age that thinner equals faster. But this is a toxic message that should not be preached to young impressionable athletes. Failing to fuel your body can lead to severe health consequences such as osteoporosis. This is why stress fractures are so common among distance runners.
What you can do
If this was the message you needed to hear, I hope you can reflect on how you’ve been treating yourself. Remember to be kind and gentle to your body, and respect it for all it does for you.
If you’re a coach, instead of emphasizing weight, teach your athletes that the strongest, healthiest runners are the fastest ones.
No short term race result is worth the sacrifice of an athlete’s long term health. Therefore, it is crucial to send the right message. You must always put the athlete’s overall well being above any single race performance. That is what will ultimately provide them happiness and longevity in the sport.