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Out There: Runner’s Face? Really?

Does running cause us to age faster?

Lately, I’ve been getting emails from plastic surgery offices, each one suggesting I write an article on their latest fix for the so-called epidemic of “Runner’s Face” afflicting athletes. The first time it happened, I rolled my eyes and hit the “delete” button—everything’s a syndrome these days, right?

The second time a procedure for Runner’s Face popped up in my inbox, I was equal parts amused and annoyed.

After the third, fourth, and fifth time, I began to wonder if the universe was trying to tell me something.

Runner’s Face, if you haven’t heard, is a premature-aging phenomenon affecting the appearance of athletes in their 30s and beyond. Those affected claim all the bouncing from running causes the skin to lose its elasticity and sag; that, combined with exercise-induced weight loss, causes a runner’s visage to look like the face-melting scene from Raiders of The Lost Ark.

At least, that’s what it sounds like in most written descriptions of Runner’s Face. To confirm, I did a Google Image search for Runner’s Face. Note to self: Never, ever, ever do a Google Image search for Runner’s Face again.

“I think I need Botox,” I told my sister in a panic, showing her the photos I had discovered of haggard-looking men and women with sunken cheeks and droopy bags under their eyes.

“I think you need to get your head checked,” she replied.

“LOOK AT THIS!” I poked at my cheeks frenetically. “I’m just one marathon away from becoming a shar-pei!”

Meghan rolled her eyes and walked away, refusing to acknowledge my fears. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the cosmetic fate in store for me. That afternoon, as I ran past glass storefronts downtown, I scrutinized my reflection in motion: Are those jowls? Are they bouncing? Do I need to wear a supportive garment on my chin, like a face bra? Does anyone even make face bras?

That night, I browsed through the seemingly millions of anti-aging products available—creams, serums, balms, potions—hoping to find the fountain of youth. I bought something called “Hope in a Jar,” convinced it sounded exactly like what I needed. Later, I stumbled onto a video series that claims to tone and tighten facial muscles through a series of stretching and poking.

“What are you doing?” My husband said when he walked into the living room. I was mid-stretch, my eyes widened and mouth in a surprised “O” shape while extending my neck as far as it would crane.

“Turning back the hands of time,” I said with determination.

Neil turned on his heel and walked away, presumably in search of a wife who wasn’t following DIY facelift instructions from YouTube.

“I think we need to have a talk, Susan.” My dermatologist said when she walked into the examining room, a printout of my unnerved e-mail in hand. I had requested an immediate appointment to discuss my options for keeping my emerging Droopy Dog at bay. As a runner and triathlete herself, I was certain she’d understand my concern.

Instead, she shook her head and sighed: “Runner’s Face? It’s not a real thing. There is no evidence that running causes anyone to look older than they are.”

“But all those doctors—”

“Stop,” she interrupted. “You should know better. You see runners every day. What do they look like?”

I paused for a moment, scrolling through my mental photo album of fellow runners. She was right: I was being irrational. The only time I had actually observed a case of pallid, haggard Runner’s Face was in the photos from plastic surgery websites during my panicked Googling. In the real world, it was…well, not a thing in the real world.

Faces change as they age, yes. People get wrinkles and crow’s feet and deep ridges around their mouths. But they get those things from living—from smiling at their loved ones, furrowing their brows at a gripping story, squinting in the sunshine on a beautiful spring day, and laughing so hard they cry. The changes of aging aren’t always desirable, but they’re earned.

My doctor was right—there’s no hard evidence that running accelerates the natural processes of aging. She sent me on my way with a recommendation to drink more water, remember to reapply sunscreen often, and stop reading unsolicited e-mails from plastic surgeons.

I’m still keeping my Hope in a Jar, though. Just in case I need it someday.

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About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.