Running Has Taught Me to Appreciate What My Body Can Do, Not What Size It Is

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Growing up, I was always small and scrawny. I never really noticed my body size until I started high school. I remember hearing people say, “Oh, you’re so tiny. How do you do that?” I took pride in being small — something I feel ashamed about now — and the pressure of maintaining that body size led me to be careful about what I ate as I became an adult.

I didn’t play sports back then, but my brother ran cross country in high school, and I remember that he would come home stinky and covered in mud. I thought, “This is so silly! Why would you choose to run?” I didn’t “get it” until my boyfriend started training for a marathon in 2014. I was 25, and I wanted to understand what he was doing when he left the house for hours at a time. So I just tried running one mile. It was hard, but I kept at it because I wanted to be supportive. That’s really why I wanted to get into running.

At the time, I lived near a park with a one-mile loop. I specifically remember the first time I finished that course and didn’t feel absolutely exhausted. I think I looked around to see if anyone else was witnessing this moment. It felt both so big and so ordinary at the same time: so big because it was a new feeling; so ordinary because it was already part of a new habit. It was exciting and validating to literally feel the progress of something that had been really hard getting easier and easier.

When you start running, you improve fast. You’re running half a mile, then one mile, then one-and-a-half, then two, then three. I started tagging along on my boyfriend’s miles, and one day, as we slowed to a jog, he said: “Do you know how long that was? Five miles.” Just like when I finished that one-mile loop, this felt like a huge milestone. By then, I was well and truly hooked; I ran the Army Ten-Miler that fall.

Around the same time, I started rethinking my relationship with my body. Before, my approach to eating was “less, less, less.” I never had a huge appetite to begin with, but looking back I realize I’d also unconsciously internalized the social pressure to stay small.

But as I began to run more, I realized food is fuel. Making that connection between food and running outcomes was an aha moment. Eating stopped being about controlling the size of my body, and started being more about how to best optimize my performance at this sport that I’d come to love so much.

I was still thin, but I knew that I needed fuel to feel strong on my runs. I’ve never been a breakfast person, but I started making myself eat a fruit bar before my morning runs. When I was out, I would set an alarm on my phone and eat energy chews every 30 minutes.

I logged two major races in my first two years as a runner: the Marine Corps Marathon in 2015 and Grandma’s Marathon in 2017. I made an ambitious goal for the latter event — one that I missed, which ultimately destroyed my relationship with running for a while. I took two years off, and that’s when my body really started to change.

I wasn’t a “skinny” woman anymore. I no longer heard the “oh you’re so tiny” comments. At first, it was an odd, even uncomfortable feeling. Then, a friend who was doing some photos for me — which I felt fairly self-conscious about — admired my muscly calves. Her words stuck with me, and some time later I had another perspective shift, similar to my earlier realization about food being fuel: Heck yes, my calves have grown! Although I wasn’t running much at the time, during the previous two years they’d taken an enormous amount of total force over the course of my runs. I was able to celebrate their strength as a result of — even an homage to — my love for the sport.

But our relationships with our bodies ebb and flow, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, I entered an ebb. I felt tired. My depression got worse, and I felt stuck in a vicious cycle: my body wasn’t achieving anything for me, and so I wasn’t treating it like the amazing machine it is. I felt trapped in it instead of empowered by it.

For several years, I wasn’t in a great place with my body image. This discouraged me from getting back into running because I started to think of myself as “out of shape.”

But as the pandemic dragged on, I — like so many people — needed a reason to leave the house every day. So I decided to return to running. I started from scratch, using a Couch to 5K program. This time, I felt more empowered and educated. I strength trained and focused on nutrition. I laced up more consistently than I ever had before.

Now, I think my body is probably the same size or even bigger than it was during my break from running, but my relationship with it is totally different. It’s strong. I’m not necessarily faster, but I have more energy and passion for what I’m doing.

There’s this hill at the end of my regular route. In just the last few weeks, I realized that I’ve been finishing my runs with my heart rate in an easy zone. Going up that hill is no longer a problem, even though I used to dread it. That’s strong.

I’ve now raced three of four of my spring races, with the Marine Core Historic Half this Sunday. I haven’t hit any personal records so far, but I’ve never completed this many hard-effort runs back-to-back.

face Now when I hear comments like, “Wow, your legs are so strong!” I can take them as the compliments they are . I think the biggest takeaway for me is to focus on what my body can do, not what it looks like — and running helps me keep that perspective.

— As told to Kells McPhillips.

Kells McPhillips is a health and wellness writer living in Los Angeles. In addition to PS, her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Well+Good, Fortune, Runner’s World, Outside, Yoga Journal, and others. On the brand side, she regularly works with Peloton, Calm, and Equinox.

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