Rejecting the Runner's Body

Group of four people running on track

You don’t need a certain type of body to be a runner, and yet, the idea of the skinny “runner’s body” is so pervasive that, for many, it elicits negative thoughts like you’re not skinny enough, not fast enough or good enough to run.

This type of thinking is not only psychologically damaging, it’s not true.

Recent studies illuminate a clear relationship between what many people perceive as a “runner’s body” and disordered eating. And more and more athletes of all levels speak out every year about their own experiences with eating disorders and the related stress of body image.

Running On Empty: The Eating Disorder Epidemic

Pro runner Emily Infeld poses for a photo on a track

“I hate the idea that there’s a runner’s body or a distance runner's body,” says professional runner and member of Bowerman Track Club, Emily Infeld. “Never try to look like anyone else other than your happy, healthy, fueled self. You will feel your fiercest and most confident when you’re energized, fueled well and running well.”

A study at Wright State University found that athletes like distance runners have higher rates of eating disorders compared to athletes of other sports. The study found that 46 percent of NCAA Division I female runners screened positive for disordered eating compared to 14 percent of male athletes.

These findings lead to startling realizations; that female athletes experience greater pressure around their body image than males, and that disordered eating and dysmorphic body image are an epidemic in the running industry.

Lead researcher Dr. Paul A. Krebs concludes the study by emphasizing the concentrated impact of eating disorders on college-level runners. He additionally points out a toxic relationship that many of us unknowingly partake in:

“The perceived performance enhancement with weight varies between sports,” writes Krebs. “That is, there are different ideal physiques and psychological stressors between not only genders but also sports, and eating disorder rates and risk are likely to be affected by these.”

Krebs found that athletes like runners (and athletes in other sports that emphasize weight) are more likely to be impacted by eating disorders during their career. The reason behind this? The idealized “runner’s body,” and the false association between weight and performance.

Studies like Dr. Krebs’ point to a dangerous tipping point many runners find themselves at, grappling with the idealized runner’s body and actual, healthy, performance.

Esther Atkins running in a race

Esther Atkins, a professional marathoner and coach in Greenville, South Carolina, found a way back from this dangerous intersection.

“I was lucky because eating less always meant I performed worse. I had a very clear point of diminishing returns,” says Atkins.“Whereas other people get to the point where they’re ridiculously emaciated and still performing well and that’s really scary.”

The body dysmorphia around athleticism and running doesn’t begin and end in the collegiate or professional realm.

This toxic thinking about body image, and how to fuel that body image, trickles all the way down to the way everyday runners think about their bodies, eating and their running regimen.

Fueling for Performance

Boston University's Dr. Paula Quatromoni, DSc, RD, has spent her career researching sports nutrition and has become outspoken about providing dietetic resources to athletes at all levels.


Dr. Quatromoni highlights the importance of eating competence, defined by the Satter Eating Competence Model as “being positive, comfortable and flexible with eating as well as matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough to eat of enjoyable and nourishing food.”

“Not everybody is raised to be a competent eater, and then along the way, even people who were, sometimes can lose it through sport experiences or coaching interactions,” says Dr. Quatromoni. In short, this means you “lose your eating competence.” And in many cases, diet culture is to blame.

“It’s not about setting it up as good food or bad food,:” she says, “but it’s the informed decisions about ‘What am I going to digest well? What is going to fuel me? What is going to be the right balance of protein and carbs for recovery nutrition?’”

While the health benefits of running are immense, and can be felt at any level, it’s important to remember that running is not going to mold your body into one definitive shape, nor should it.

If you pick up rocks out of a river, they are all going to have different shapes, sizes and colors, even though they are all shaped by the same water. This same principle is true of running.

Atkins talks in depth about the intersection of disordered eating and comparison in elite running.

“There are some women who are naturally skinny and there are some women who can seemingly eat next to eat nothing and will never be skinny,” she says.“It’s just genetics and it’s totally not fair to think of the world that way.”

Changing the Conversation

Comparison is a dangerous game. While it’s not the root of disordered eating, it can lead to it, and overall damage the psyche of any individual, especially athletes.

“One of the things about sport especially is the powerful role modeling of our peers, the influence that our coaches and teammates have over us and the people we compete against and people on social media who are Olympians and pro athletes. It gets so conflated along the way,” says Dr. Quatromoni.

If the running industry wants to embrace a diverse range of body shapes and sizes and truly make them feel represented on all levels, there needs to be change in the discussion around all running bodies.

Runners like Boise State’s Allie Ostrander have publicly pushed back against analyst commentary that highlighted her “babyface” instead of her third reigning NCAA National Champion title in the steeplechase.

In 2020, commentators for the Ostrava Golden Spike meet could be heard noting the build of the pacers in the women’s 1500m event, rather than their athletic accolades saying, “You can actually tell, just by looking at the way that they’re built, that they’re [laughs], the pacemakers. Much more muscle mass on our two pacemakers.”

“Hearing commentators at races talk about women’s bodies is one of my biggest pet peeves,” says Infeld. “I want to know their splits, what they’re running or a backstory. Why are you focusing on their bodies? Why ever would you talk about that?”

Aisha Praught Leer
Four women wearing sports bras during a track workout
Aisha Praught Leer

The complexities of eating disorders are personal and variable, but if you extrapolate an overarching theme from the disproportionately high rate of eating disorders in collegiate and elite runners, it’s clear that chasing down the runner’s body is a race that no one will ever win.

Instead, you can compete by showing your own body love by fueling it with nutritious food, positive self talk and body affirming behaviors, and demanding better of an industry that serves individuals of all athletic abilities, shapes and sizes.