I took up running 20 years ago to lose weight and attract a bloke. It all went to plan. I dropped a stone and gained his affections. Then I got a stress fracture and had to stop running. The weight crept back on and, well… you can guess the rest. It was a useful lesson: don’t lose weight to please a man. And be sure to run for the right reasons.
Maybe it’s just an age thing but, years later, my motivation for running has changed. Running used to be mainly about losing weight and looking good. In more recent years, I have been running to combat stress and feel healthy. I also run to achieve goals, rather than to chase that elusive six-pack. Women’s Running contributing editor Lisa Jackson, who has completed over 100 marathons and wrote the book Your Pace Or Mine?, summed it up perfectly when she told me: “It’s not about how you look. It’s about what your body can do.”
Better body confidence
You might say we become more health aware and less concerned about aesthetics as we age. Events and marketing coordinator Megan McAstocker, 23, from Northamptonshire has transformed her body image through running. “Running has made me realise you don’t have to be a size 6 to be fit and healthy,” she says. “Seeing what I can achieve now with running in comparison to when I first started has made me so proud of what I can put my body through. When I was younger I was always comparing myself to my friends and others. I used to think: ‘Her arms are slimmer than mine’ or, ‘Her stomach is flatter than mine.’ I’ve realised we are all different and my ability to run further than I ever thought possible has made me realise that, just because I don’t have a flat stomach, doesn’t mean I’m not healthy.”
Eva Alexandrides is the managing director of skincare company 111SKIN (111skin.com) and credits running with giving her the energy to maintain her busy lifestyle, which entails long hours and frequent travel. “Body image is not so important to me,” she says. “Clarity of mind and sense of purpose are crucial. If I wasn’t in shape, I’d find it a lot harder to run a business, look after my kids and still have a social life with my husband. It helps provide clarity and sort my priorities.”
Psychologist Leanne Whyman, 32, runs five times a week. Her perspective on running changed dramatically after a serious illness. “I’ve had a long relationship with running from school age, but it never became more important to my body confidence until after my diagnosis with breast cancer,” she says. “Body confidence to me is a belief in the ability of your body. Once you understand what your body is built for, you treat it with respect. Human beings are built to run biologically. If you go back to the era of evolution, it made sense for us to run. To hunt and gather, to run away from predators. Body confidence should come from knowing you are part of this species built to run. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Dr Bijal Chheda-Varma is a psychologist and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) therapist based at the Nightingale Hospital in London (nightingalehospital.co.uk) who treats eating disorders, as well as mood and anxiety disorders. She strongly believes in the mental benefits of running. “Running and other forms of aerobic exercise that increase your heart rate will have a very soothing effect on your mind because of the release of endorphins,” she says. “It gives you a feel-good factor, emotionally and mentally, so there’s an immediate benefit. If you apply that feel-good factor to your general sense of wellbeing, of which body image is one component, there’s a fair chance your body image is going to improve.”
Chedda-Varma also believes that running promotes body awareness, which can help you appreciate your body and respect what it can do. “Any physical activity like running provides a real engagement with your body,” she adds.
You may wonder, if running is good for our body confidence, then why do so many women lack the self-belief to give it a try?
“I think it comes from way back when we were younger,” says Whyman. “If girls in PE at school weren’t good runners, they weren’t pushed, whereas boys were shouted at. It’s going to feed into your own belief in your ability. Everyone can run, regardless of whether you can run for 30 seconds on your first attempt, 30 minutes or 30 miles. It doesn’t matter. You are built to run.”
New runners may lack confidence in their ability to run at first, but the more we accomplish, the more confident we can become. We soon learn that running can train us to achieve goals. “When you are challenging your body with running and you achieve milestones, you are giving it positive affirmations,” says Chedda-Varma. “You might start by thinking you’d like to run 10K, then you run 15K and then you decide to join a club and train for a half-marathon. Knowing you can achieve goals and milestones does wonders for our confidence and wellbeing. Imagine pushing that analogy into work or something else you find challenging in other areas of life.”
“There’s lots of neurological evidence on how running can change a person’s mindset,” agrees Whyman. “When you run, there’s increased blood flow to the frontal lobe in your head. The frontal lobe is where emotions, focus and goal-setting all occur and there’s some research conducted that [shows it can help] people recover better from sadness. One study showed clips of sad, horrible things from films and people who engaged in 30-40 minutes of vigorous exercise actually recovered quickly from the initial sadness they felt from watching it.”
Despite her illness, Whyman derives a lot of positivity from running. “I had to have a full mastectomy, radical surgery and chemotherapy,” she says. “Even on the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had to run. That was when running became about body confidence for me. It’s so important to understand it doesn’t matter how your body looks. It’s carrying you and your soul and you have to treat it with the utmost respect. I think it played a major role in my recovery, as I wasn’t thinking about having my mastectomy, I was focusing on something other than sitting in a hospital. Before I was ill, I thought my tummy was too flabby and my boobs had changed after breastfeeding. Now if you ask me what I think of my body, I’m as bold as brass. I have faith in my body.”
Interestingly, even injuries can serve as a confidence boost. “Injuries are a big life lesson,” says Chedda-Varma. “They are a test of a person’s emotional and physical resilience. If you overcome injury and get to know what your limits are, in terms of running, it’s a very important lesson.”
We love our running bodies…
“In 2015 I completed two half-marathons and the New York City Marathon. In 2016, I completed two more marathons and took 18 minutes off my time. Sometimes I look at my legs and can’t believe how far they have carried me. I am intensely proud of what my body has achieved. Having gone through stages in my teens of very low body confidence, I have learned to value and respect my body for what it can do rather than what it looks like. I am much more accepting and proud of my body than I have ever been before.”
Alisha Olsen, marketing manager, 32, West Sussex
“Running got me through a tough bout of depression. I was studying, balancing three jobs and went through a tough break-up; then my nan died. Running released my negative feelings. It made me re-connect with my body. I’ve now done five marathons and two ultras and learned our bodies are not robotic machines and, with excessive beating, will get injured! Body image is important to me but self-confidence is way more important. There is a lot of judgment on social media and I have no time for it. Everyone is beautiful.”
Rebecca Watson, Nike Run Club pacer, 25, North London