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How Running Helped Me Overcome Negative Body Image

Did you start running because you thought it would be the best way to stay thin? I did.

Four years ago when I signed up for my first half marathon, the idea of training for something that seemed beyond my physical abilities intrigued the daredevil in me. But I had another reason for running—one that I was ashamed to share with my family or friends—I thought it would get me the perfect body I always wanted.

Growing up, I hated my big thighs and envied other women for their flat stomachs. Desperate to be skinny, I developed an unhealthy obsession with my body weight. In college I religiously counted and tracked calories, points, carbs, etc., for two years straight. This disciplined structure eventually lead me to rebel against the dieting system, and I spiraled into full-blown Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and depression. Anti-depressants helped me overcome that tough period, but they couldn’t permanently cure the negative thoughts I had about my body.

When you go through an eating disorder, you disconnect from your physical body. Through BED, I had sabotaged my body and rebelled against its cries for balance. I had lost the ability to trust my body and had thrown away any notion of self-care. Training for the half helped me focus more on taking proper care of my body versus scrutinizing it for not looking a certain way. If I wanted to survive the race, I had to eat well, get plenty of sleep, stretch, ice my muscles, foam roll, treat the blisters and so on. You can’t neglect your physical needs when you’re training for a race.

What surprised me in my training wasn’t how running made me look (I didn’t get the perfect body I’d dreamed up, and I’ve finally learned that it doesn’t exist!), but how it made me feel. Each week when I added a mile to my long run, I was astounded by what my body was capable of doing. For years I had been so focused on shaming my legs and stomach for their appearance, that I’d forgotten to appreciate them for all that they do for me on a daily basis.

My legs, though they may be big, allow me to walk my dog every day. They allowed me to dance with my husband at my wedding. They have carried me through nine half marathons and a full! My core assisted in these feats, and it continues to get stronger with each activity I do. I don’t have to run to make these features look better. I get to run because these body parts function well.

This revelation about what my body allows me to do has helped me view it with love and gratitude. Not everyone is blessed with the ability to run. I am fortunate to be in the body I have, and I will do everything I can to take proper care of it. I’ll be good and kind to it, focusing on building it up in strength rather than tearing it down with my vain thoughts.

I don’t race much anymore, but I continue to run for the way it energizes me and makes me feel. I run because I am blessed with big, sturdy legs that allow me to do so!

If you have negative body image, long-distance running can be a great outlet to get to know and appreciate your body again. Though, if you’ve been through an eating disorder, tread carefully when training for races. If you’re not looking to compete heavily or break records, accept that running is a fun, expressive and healing activity for you and treat it as such. You don’t need to rely on your watch for every run, track every mile or eat one more bowl of rice to hit a certain number of carbs for the day. Listen to your body and trust that it is telling you what it needs.

Avoid getting hung up on how running makes you look. Instead, obsess over how it makes you feel. Be grateful for what your body can do at any shape or size. Run because you get to.