Jay Dicharry has studied strides, footstrikes, injuries and ailments on thousands of runners over the years. An internationally renowned expert in biomechanical analysis who works out of Rebound Physical Therapy in Bend, Ore., Dicharry has seen all body types and abilities come through his door.
Which makes sense, because do a little people-watching at any endurance sports event and you will witness all shapes and sizes racing all different distances. While the elite runners tend to be smaller (Meb Keflezighi is listed at 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds), the age-group athletes behind them vary from petite to big-and-tall and everything in between.
It’s the latter end of the spectrum that’s created a bit of a sub-community within running—the Clydesdales and the Athenas.
In message board threads, during casual group runs and just talking among friends, these runners often share the challenges that are supposedly unique to those blessed with size. Among them? An increase in injury risk due to the additional pounding on the lower legs. After all, Clydesdales and Athenas are asking their joints to absorb more, right?
Makes sense, but Dicharry says to hold off connecting those dots.
“I see a lot of Clydesdale and Athena-type runners,” he says. “To be honest, I haven’t really seen an increase in running injuries by weight in active athletes.
“If you are asking if larger-framed runners tend to have more injuries than smaller folks, I honestly can’t say I see it. Sure, bigger runners have to carry more weight, but they also tend to be stronger.”
“Active athletes” is the key term here. Yes, it’s possible to be 200-plus pounds, with a few qualities not typically associated with fitness, and still be a good athlete in great shape.
It’s a little different story for an overweight person who isn’t active. One study showed that obese individuals tend to walk wider due to the girth of their legs, which alters the force through their limbs and may have long-term consequences on joint loading—but the subjects of that study were inactive people.
For active runners? We’ll call that “Clydesdales-are-injury-prone” myth dubious at best. However, some of the other challenges that are often discussed among bigger runners DO have some truth behind them. Such as…
While injuries may not be something a larger, active runner has to worry about at an increased rate, there’s still the very real consequence of body mass and its impact on running economy.
“It’s a lot easier to run with less weight,” Dicharry said. “It’s simple really—less weight to pick up and put down with each stride equals a lower cost of running.”
A study published in the Journal of Athletic Training looked at the sweat rates of National Football League players (NFL players were selected because they are athletes with a high fitness level who come in a variety of shapes and sizes). Eight lineman (who typically weigh around 300 pounds) and four defensive backs (typically 175 to 200 pounds) were observed, and the conclusion was clear—the larger athletes had higher sweat rates, had greater sweat loss volume, consumed more fluids and produced less urine.
“Athletes with greater body surface area (BSA) may have additional sweat glands or, more likely, larger-diameter sweat glands that promote higher rates of sweating compared with smaller BSA athletes,” the study concluded.
In short, all runners should stay on top of fluid consumption. For larger runners, it’s even more crucial.
Dicharry was asked, simply, “Should bigger runners gravitate toward a certain running shoe—think cushion—and away from shoes that are less supportive?”
While not making any direct shoe-type recommendations for larger runners, Dicharry did acknowledge a clear impact of weight on running shoes.
“Mass for sure matters in footwear—and not just in bigger runners,” Dicharry said. “The heavier the runner, the easier [running shoes] will compress a given amount of midsole. A middle-of-the-road cushioned shoe for a regular runner will function much more like a racing flat for someone over 200 pounds. More mass just flattens out the material.”
Shoes are an individual taste that can be picked out with help of a shoe-fitting specialist at your local running store. But keep in mind, if you’re a Clydesdale or Athena runner, your shoes might wear out a little quicker than someone 50 pounds lighter than you. It’s just simple physics.
For an age-group runner not trying to make a living in the sport, running is a great activity no matter your size. And, besides some small differences in sweat rates, shoe wear and running economy, Clydesdale and Athena runners are not living on an island playing by different biomechanical rules.
“Heavier people typically have worse running economy than lighter runners, but their strength tends to offset a lot of the muscular imbalances we see in lighter, leaner runners,” Dicharry said. He then offered advice runners of all size could take on.
“Some runners might be better served putting on a few ounces of lean body mass for better stability and force generation. After all, the lightest runner doesn’t always win.”