Running has always been a significant part of my life in various forms and stages, from my teens playing soccer up to 3 hours a day, 10 times a week later in college before a significant pivot to D1 Track and Cross Country my Senior year, later running and often winning road races in my mid 20’s, and finally transitioning to triathlon and Ironmans for the past decade. Then in June of 2019 I did my last running race, the Corporate Challenge with a bunch of friends, and just as I did with Soccer decided to walk away.
For me, there was nothing close to the thrill of going shoulder to shoulder with someone 10 miles into a half marathon at 5:40 pace knowing when I kicked there was no way they’d be able to maintain, or off the bike in a 70.3 not much slower picking off the front runners one by one. I loved the rush, the mental game, the competition and comradery. There was also something so pure about a sport that requires no real equipment, venue or teammates, all the accountability as well as accomplishment. But my growing apprehension and turnoff to the sport lied in two distinct areas 1) the severe leanness of those at the front as well as 2) the decrepit dynamics of those at the back (toll the sport seemed to take on the body) .
For anyone who’s shared this consideration I wanted to put down in writing my thoughts to test their validity as well as see if this blog stands the test of time, to understand if my concerns are legitimate and if so whether the sacrifice is worth it.
Why skinny matters in racing
Many people will argue the significance of weight in running therefore I will try and be careful in my wording. I believe it is without question that it is possible to run well at a heavier build, but conversely that every pound above optimal is an added disadvantage you will have to compensate. For example, to illustrate by the numbers there is a book I used to read and follow in my early cycling progression called Training and Racing with a Power Meter by Hunter Allen. In it was a power chart (w/kg) where they would represent how your output compared to the population at various segments.
In 2019 I competed in an Olympic Triathlon and at 325 watts averaged 24.9 mph to go under 1 hour in the bike portion (not much to brag as the pros go bigger and faster in an Ironman, but suitable for an Age Grouper like myself). At 160lbs (72.5kg) that kind of power (4.5w/kg) would stack up with a Cat II racer while the same power at my current weight of 185lbs would be a whole level down, or another way of putting it, to maintain the same output at a heavier weight of 185lbs I would need to increase my power to around 380 watts for an equivalent time (terrain dependent).
Noted that cycling is a whole different sport but the same principles apply and with running in fact are even more significant. In a 2017 Runners World article it is suggested studies show 1 extra pound of weight adds between 1 and 2 seconds per mile depending on body composition and speed. At a difference of 25lbs from ideal race weight that could mean an average of 35 seconds slower per mile. But there are significant factors other than performance that should influence weight decisions such as health and body image.
Running is often called the most corrosive of the three-discipline sport of triathlon and I would surmise makes up a disproportionate majority of injuries. Though there are health conditions related to getting excessively lean as well, I would suspect the likelihood of injury goes up exponentially with weight gain. In my research and personal experience achilles injuries are very common for heavier runners and even at race weight I have had my fair share of those. But when it comes to health it’s important not to solely make the association between weight and fat. Maintaining muscle mass is actually one of the most critical factors for warding off fragility in aging as the ability to gain and maintain it drops in your 30’s and gets even worse in your 60’s+. A consideration – if I stay lean now to run will I be able to add muscle later when it matters?
Finally, I think it’s very reasonable to consider body image as a significant factor. When I competed in my last road race I remember looking around and feeling shocked with the size of the lead runners, bringing back memories to college where I was 6-1 and a meager 150lbs. Admittingly I’m not comfortable in that body. It’s just not the person I want to see when I look in the mirror. Having diverted my focus to lifting, particularly during the pandemic, I’ve been able to put on weight to a point at 185lbs when I look in the mirror I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be, confident in my skin. Does it make running much harder? Of course! But I hardly notice that unless I’m running which I purposefully rarely ever do. I find no shame in weighing one’s image over performance as it’s up to us and no one else to say what is important.
Do we only have a certain number of miles in our legs?
How many times have you heard running is bad for your knees? How many friends do you know who have had to get surgery for an overuse injury? Have you ever sat and watched the way some people run at the end of a road race pondering “is this healthy?”, woken up stiff from a hard workout or hobbled down the stairs after a marathon? I have and it has led me to question not just the longevity of the sport but its effect on mobility in general long term. In my past I have ran some 100 mile weeks and very fast miles. I remember a time training at altitude in Boulder Colorado for college XC where I was running great but struggled to reach my shins stretching each morning. I don’t know if running is necessarily the enemy, but if not managed I am highly suspect that it can be done at a high level for more than a decade without repercussions.
I spent quite a bit of time online searching for evidence that the miles in our legs are limited to no avail, even finding an articles to say the contrary, but I do suspect that even if something can be done that it may come at a compromise. I realized a series of calf strains leading to a significant sprain/tear in 2015 were a pattern and growing problem for me, but that if I biked before every run, wrapped my calves, stayed on soft surfaces and kept slower than 6 min/mile it would be kept at bay. I could still run and race well but it made me question harm I may be doing to my body, and this is after seeing a half dozen PT’s and spending thousand dollars looking for an informed solution. I’ve heard there are two types of pain, pain that hurts and pain that alters. Maybe injury is the body’s natural way of pushing us towards other methods of exercise, and there are so many out there!
Perhaps the greatest and most significant gauge of value/harm from different types of exercise is how it makes us feel. Getting out of the pool after a 90-minute set I have always felt great, other than an ensuing state of sleepiness, off the bike following hard intervals or anything under 5 hours good to go, but even a run as little as 30 minutes would have me achy at the start and hobbling a bit after. Same goes for races in each discipline. Strength training may result in soreness, but it’s a different kind of fatigue that I would argue is far less debilitating and necessary for building muscle. I understand that exercise should feel difficult, often painful, but I struggle to believe any experienced athlete could not tell the difference between the type of pain that makes us stronger vs breaks us down, as hard of a realization it may be to confront.
Where to go from here…
I wonder how many athletes choose a sport based on what they enjoy to do, or an image of a better self versus an introspective reflection on what is in our body’s best interest for the long haul, including mobility, resilience and longevity. I believe I am coming to terms that I don’t want to compromise my body (physically and visually) for an endurance world based on power to weight. I feel that I am at a bit of a crossroads wondering if it is better to continue selectively (aquabike??) at a handicap, vs completely switch things up, as I did moving from soccer to running, to compete at a higher level in a sport that is more sustainable. I don’t think what sport someone does is really what defines us as athletes, rather an approach, work ethic and commitment to anything that makes us sweat. At 37 finding what that thing is that I can do well for the next few decades is multiple times more significant that what I may be capable of doing great for another handful of years.
Though every person’s decision should be unique I would greatly appreciate feedback!