Fitness,  Health,  Life

What College Running Did to My Body Image

While my experience was as a female collegiate runner, everyone faces different external standards, that often become internal standards, as to what their body should look like. I’m sharing my story in hopes to create greater awareness around what messages we promote, and inspire change in both the world of athletics and as a culture overall. 

Bliss

I never had any issues with my body growing up. I hardly noticed it honestly. It was just my body and it let me do a lot of fun things. Even in high school, though I probably didn’t eat the healthiest and was slightly heavier than I am now, I was really active and never wasted an ounce of energy critiquing my body. It was strong, fast, and agile. I could dress up in whatever clothes I wanted. I played three sports year round. And I would eat my mom’s homemade butterscotch chocolate chips cookies every day ha (you would too if you tried them 😉 ).

After high school, I was blessed with the opportunity to run collegiately at the Division I level. I was pretty naive to what the experience would be like, but I was super excited. I loved running and being part of a team. I was definitely average compared to everyone else at that level, so had a lot of work ahead of me, which I was ready to tackle. Hard work was something that never scared me.

Eyes Wide Open

The time had finally come. It was my very first cross country training camp and my very first workout with all these strong, fast, beautiful women (I was a little intimated that’s for sure). As we’re about to start, I look around and see almost everyone wearing nothing but tight spandex shorts and sports bras. All of the sudden, I was hyper-aware of my body. I was used to running in soccer shorts and cotton T-shirts (at least stepping up to loose running shorts and dri-fit my senior year ha). How did my body fit into this new scene? I hardly looked at my body before, I only used it, but now I was looking. While there is nothing wrong with spandex shorts and sports bras at all…especially since it was crazy hot outside, but it was all new to me. I was young and undeveloped as an elite athlete. I couldn’t match their experience, but I could aim for it.

If you know anything about the beginning of cross country season, you know that everyone comes with something to prove – our fitness and all the hard work we put in over the summer. Can you guess what the first visible sign of our fitness is to our coaches and teammates? Yep, our bodies. So it was like an instant measurement tool. And we start to equate thinness or muscle tone with performance and how hard someone is working.

My high personal expectations began to extend beyond academic performance to my physical body…constantly gauging my “progress” and if it/I was good enough. Wanting to prove my work ethic and make sure my coach was happy with my training. My competitive and perfectionist nature led me to chase the top and want to be the best. This is good in some ways, but bad in others. I found myself pinching my stomach “fat” each night to check where I was at and make sure it wasn’t increasing, ideally getting less, aka more in shape. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s true. And it still happens at times today. Probably out of fear of gaining weight and that long-standing desire to be as fit as possible. Dealing with a myriad of injuries and health issues makes it even harder. You have more to prove when you’re not performing or racing. You put in double the work – rehab exercises and extensive cross training sessions to make up for the lack of running. All in an effort to make our bodies do what we want.

jen xc 5th yr copyRunning my 5th year of Cross Country

What Goes Unspoken is Still Heard

It’s both rewarding and challenging being among a group of highly driven and perfectionist women, which happens to be part of the nature of competitive athletes, or someone at the elite level of anything – you want to perfect your craft. And in many cases, your body is a key element in doing so. In running,  being lean and visibly strong was the desirable body type. Insecurities led people to question themselves and compare. Team meals were plagued by “What are you getting?” Trying to order the right thing, the healthiest thing, and not overeat…well, because what would the others or my coach think? Never mind that every single person is unique in their body, metabolism, nutritional needs, and more.

A lot was based on the unwritten formula, no one talks about but most everyone feels, that exercising more and eating less will get you faster. Yet for women especially, there’s a big hormonal factor with weight that actually creates the opposite reaction you’d “expect” from over-exercise (more stress and cortisol = more fatigue and weight gain) and fewer calories (parasympathetic stress response to conserve fat due to threat of “starvation” and not knowing the difference between real famine and self-imposed famine).

While there are many coaches and teams that do an amazing job emphasizing the importance of having a strong, healthy body and not going to extremes in either direction, it’s still all too prevalent, and should not be ignored. Weight loss might “work” for some people to run fast for a limited time, but I haven’t seen it last much longer than a year, when the athlete often collapses both mentally and physically. Wondering why their body is “failing” them, when really we have all failed them.

Lasting Imprint

Now don’t get me wrong, running at the collegiate level was incredible and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My struggle with body image was not something that overrode my experience there, but it laid roots during this time and has stayed with me since. While I never went to the extreme in terms of weight or eating, I developed an expectation and desire to look like an elite athlete – lean and defined – at all times. And anything less meant I just needed to work harder…run a little more or eat a little better or less, and an exhausting cycle continued.

It can be even harder after college, when we’re cast from the safety net of our team, schedule and identity…into the “real” world. When we’re no longer collegiate runners, who are we? Without the guidance or awareness to explore what else brought me joy and how to nourish myself, I fell back to what was familiar, what was expected of me – that I came to expect of myself. And I had to figure out how to get my body the way I was used to, despite not being in nearly the same environment. Looking back, I definitely over-exercised (and that is another blog post in itself), until I burned myself out – physically and mentally. I ended up injured, sick, and with no desire to do anything at all.

I’ve had a lot of ups and downs with my body and level of fitness over the years, but looking back, the changes have been so minimal compared to the amount of energy I’ve expended worrying about them or trying to create them. There were times when I had gained weight and others may not have noticed a thing, but I felt it in every way. I hated it and didn’t feel good or beautiful. I wanted to hide my body rather than embrace my full womanhood. I get frustrated with myself now sometimes for it. All that energy wasted, for what? But it doesn’t have to pan out like that.

Change and Healing

So what do we do about it?

The first thing would probably be to stop and take a deep breath. Really, how often do we take time to just honor our life-giving breath and remember that we are so beautifully alive?

Reflect. What is really important to us? Where do our values lie? The more we know our own truth, the easier it is to block out those external messages about what we should do, who we should be and how we should look. {Pardon me, but f*** should.}

It’s a process. Falling more in love with ourselves and bodies every day. Here’s how I channel my journey:

  • Focusing on what my body can do rather than what it can’t do.
  • Changing my point of view.
  • Looking less in mirrors and when I do – look with love not criticism.

**It’s also important to know that our bodies are not to be ignored as the alternative to not being criticized…they are beautiful and functional, and should be appreciated as such.

  • Taking deep breaths.
  • Practicing gratitude.
  • Paying attention to how I FEEL.
  • Giving my body what it needs.
  • Stressing and worrying less.
  • Trusting the journey and my body’s ability to find balance.
  • Less comparison.
  • Knowing that my body does not determine my worthiness.
  • Paying attention to how I see MY best self, rather than sport or media’s portrayal.
  • Writing feel good lists.
  • Positive visualization and thoughts.
  • Loving others.
  • NOURISHING myself with what fills me up and brings joy to my life.

It’s still a work in progress, with some days better than others. And even though my body is not in my ideal shape or fitness right now, I feel more at peace with it then ever before.

Cultural Shifts

On a broader level, we can make a difference too. High performance is more than possible through a balanced diet and lifestyle, when the whole person is healthy.

I think there’s a lot of pressure to be thin in collegiate running…from ourselves, inevitable comparison to other athletes (we are competing on our physical abilities), coaches and from media. It’s a fine line, in terms of wanting to be the best, especially training at an elite level. And it can turn unhealthy very quickly. I heard stories of some athletes “telling on” teammates who ate a dessert and coaches giving select athletes dumbbells so they could better feel the extra weight they’re carrying around. And while sure, there are always some who could benefit to lose a few pounds from a performance standpoint, but there’s a difference between someone not taking care of their body (drinking excessive alcohol, staying up late, etc) versus carrying out a healthy lifestyle the best they know how. This fear factor will not get us anywhere positive in the long run…being afraid of food, our ever-changing body or “failure”.

Instead, can we improve performance not through focusing on body shape or weight, but rather through how we are fueling our bodies and nourishing all aspects of our lives?  Can we shift our approach to be one of nurturing and support for each other, rather than one of blame or guilt or restriction? Can we look to serve our bodies rather than make them serve us? Can we tune into ourselves and not everyone else around us? It’s like a forgotten art in today’s world…listening to and knowing our bodies, our hearts and our desires. That is what makes a person whole and healthy and able to perform at their best.

Whether it’s running, another sport, a job, a comment, social media, your name it – that triggers a false expectation for our body, let’s get back to the core of what’s important…who we are as people, our character, our values, how we compete, how we treat others and how we treat ourselves. Think about that before you think negatively about your body. It is strong, beautiful and capable, and just needs our love and nourishment to thrive ❤

Yours jenuinely, xoxo

 

 

 

 

 

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