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Combating Unhealthy Body Expectations Of Competitive Male Runners

For competitive male runners, "lighter equals faster," isn't necessarily the best or healthiest mindset to have when racing.

Much has been made of the infamous female athlete triad, which includes menstrual disturbances, decreased bone density and low energy. These factors can stem from an unhealthy relationship with food, and in some cases, an eating disorder.

As a triad or as individual issues, these elements are constantly being addressed within the running community. They have caused many elite female athletes to share their experiences with overcoming eating disorders and body dysmorphia. (Think of former Michigan State Cross Country athlete, Rachele Schulist’s inspiring Instagram post in 2016.)

What is seldom discussed is that male runners also suffer from these same health related issues brought on by pressure for their bodies to look a certain way. This can lead to false beliefs about what they should be eating to fuel their training, and in some cases, can lead to patterns of disordered eating as well.

For male athletes, there is an overwhelming trend of masculinity-themed eating and body expectations, just as there are body beliefs geared toward the ideal female athlete. Foods that will keep you lean, protein shakes that will help build muscle and a slight obsession with red meat are some common pressures pushed onto male athletes. “Typical issues with male athletes include an overconsumption of protein and not enough unsaturated fat food sources,” says sports dietitian nutritionist Kate Davis.

It’s no wonder this is the case when a quick Google search for men’s nutrition turns up ads for muscle building protein supplements and health magazines with slabs of steak on the front cover. While it may seem that these pressures wouldn’t apply to the male distance running community—which is typically thought to be full of tall, skinny men who lack upper body muscle—the truth is, distance runners of all shapes and sizes can be affected by diet pressures.

One of these pressures is the misconception that lighter equals faster. This often used phrase can lead runners to believe they have to lose weight in order to get faster. When you take a runner, who is already logging extensive mileage, and factor in a concern about their weight and body image, it can quickly lead to disordered eating. “Disordered eating in males often comes out as muscle dysmorphia,” says Davis. “In runners, specifically, it can also manifest from the idea that ‘lighter is always faster.’ Although this isn’t necessarily true, it seems logical enough to pursue it at any cost.”

This may seem logical, but there’s a difference between a healthy race weight and bordering on the line of an eating disorder. Former Central Michigan University runner and high school cross country coach Rick Bauer says a common reason runners develop an eating disorder stems from comparing oneself to other runners.

“I remember seeing Dathan Ritzenhein at [the] Foot Locker [Cross Country Championships] and he was thin but strong. I thought I needed to look like that. I ran a ton and had a stretch of about two months where I ate very little,” says Bauer. “I ran very well. I got down to 117 pounds.  I remember thinking that was too light and might not be good. But I was running well. Later that season I placed 16th at [Pre Nationals] but the following week I felt like I had a cold coming on. I went to the doctor and I had mono. My season was over and really I was never the same as a runner after that.”

So how does one avoid this scenario? Steering away from common misconceptions such as “lighter equals faster” in order to obtain a lean body is key.  Maintaining a balanced diet and avoiding too much of any food group (such as protein) is also a major factor. Davis mentions that she notices male athletes are not getting enough unsaturated fats, which carry nutrients that are vital to a runner’s performance.

According to Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky’s cookbook Run Fast. Eat Slow., “Fat is a carrier for flavor and nutrients. Many vitamins and minerals cannot be absorbed without it. Fat is also a primary source of energy-viable energy that can fuel your body for endurance endeavors. Runners often obsess over carbohydrates and protein and forget that fat is also an important building block.”

Some healthy fats that can easily be incorporated into one’s diet include avocados, olive oil, nuts/seeds and whole milk yogurt. “Good food sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, tuna, olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, nut butters, ground flaxseed and chia seeds,” says Davis. “For better recovery, I often recommend incorporating fresh or powdered ginger and garlic (versus supplements) into meals as well as 100 percent tart cherry juice post-workout and right before bed.”

“For healthy gut function and overall health, food sources of probiotics are encouraged daily. These include foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso and Kombucha tea,” Davis continues.

Fat also helps absorb the vitamins and minerals found in vegetables. As mentioned before, false beliefs about what runners should avoid have led to eating disorders in the running community. Avoiding fat may have once been believed to reduce one’s weight, but in reality, fat can help runners maintain a healthy weight and a balanced diet. In Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow., 2017 NYC Marathon Champion Shalane Flanagan says, “Since adding more fat and whole foods into my diet, my racing weight now comes naturally-without counting calories. Hallelujah!”