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Can I Run My Way to a Healthier Body Image?

Feb 07, 2024

Running has numerous benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, weight management, and increased energy levels. However, running can also be a source of anxiety and self-doubt, particularly for those who struggle with body image issues. In this blog post, I will explore the relationship between distance running and positive body image, and how athletes can develop a more positive self-image through running.

What is Body Image?

Body image refers to a person's perception and attitude towards their body. It includes how they perceive their physical appearance, as well as how they feel about their body's capabilities and limitations. A positive body image means having a realistic and accepting attitude towards your body, irrespective of its size or shape. On the other hand, a negative body image means having a distorted view of your body.

How can Negative Body Image affect Health and Performance?

A distorted view of one's body often leads to low self-esteem and anxiety. Negative body image is also a risk for eating disorders and can result in Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), which occurs when an individual's calorie intake is inadequate relative to the amount of energy used during exercise. RED-S, disordered eating, and eating disorders can increase your chances of getting injured, sick, depressed, irritated, experiencing gut issues, irregular menstrual cycles, losing strength and endurance, and having a decreased response to training. Therefore, it is crucial to address negative body image to prevent these negative health and performance consequences.

One famous athlete who struggled with RED-S and body image issues is Mary Cain, a former middle-distance runner for Nike. Cain was considered one of the most talented young runners in the United States, and she set numerous national records as a teenager. However, as she continued to train with Nike, she began to experience RED-S and developed an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. Cain was pressured to maintain a low body weight, which ultimately led to a decline in her performance and a loss of passion for the sport. In 2019, Cain went public with her story, sharing her experience with RED-S and the importance of addressing body image issues in sport.

Can Distance Running improve Body Image?

Distance running can have a positive impact on your body image, particularly for if you are struggling with negative body image issues. Running can help you connect with your body, developing a deeper appreciation for what your body can do rather than how it looks. This newfound appreciation and respect for your body can lead to a more positive body image.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Florida found that running was associated with increased body satisfaction, particularly among women. The study also found that women who run had more positive attitudes towards their bodies, including a greater acceptance of their body's imperfections. Additionally, the study found that running helped women feel more in control of their bodies, leading to a greater sense of empowerment.

Another study, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, found that regular exercise, including running, was associated with higher levels of body appreciation and lower levels of body shame among women. The study also found that the positive effects of exercise on body image were not dependent on changes in body weight or shape.

What can I do to Develop a Positive Body Image through Distance Running

While distance running can help develop a more positive body image, it is essential to approach running with a healthy and balanced mindset. Here are some tips for developing a positive body image through distance running:

Focus on the benefits of running beyond weight loss: While weight loss may be a motivator for many runners, it is important to focus on the other benefits of running, such as improved cardiovascular health, increased energy levels, and stress reduction.

Challenge negative self-talk: Negative self-talk can be particularly detrimental to those struggling with body image issues. When negative thoughts arise, try to challenge them with positive affirmations, such as "I am strong and capable."

Set realistic goals: Setting realistic goals can help you feel a sense of accomplishment, which can contribute to a more positive body image. However, it is important to set goals that are achievable and not overly ambitious, as this can lead to feelings of disappointment and frustration.

Be mindful of social media, advertising, and marketing: By actively avoiding sources that promote unrealistic expectations and unattainable body ideals, you can focus on the positive benefits of running and develop a healthier and more sustainable relationship with your body.

Find a supportive community: Finding a community of like-minded individuals can help foster a positive attitude towards running and your body. This community can be in-person or online and can offer support, encouragement, and motivation.


Distance running can be a powerful tool for developing a more positive body image. By focusing on the benefits of running beyond weight loss, challenging negative self-talk, setting realistic goals, and finding a supportive community, you can develop a deeper appreciation and respect for your body. Ultimately, developing a positive body image is a journey, and running can be a valuable part of that journey.

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For additional support, contact The Butterfly Foundation ( or phone 1800 334 673), Beyond Blue ( or phone 1300 22 4636) or Lifeline ( or phone 13 11 14) or your general physician or sports physician.


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Saini, S. (2019, November 8). Nike’s Mary Cain: the girl who became the fastest ever female US middle-distance runner – then quit. The Guardian.

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Sabiston, C. M., Pila, E., & Vani, M. (2015). Body image and physical activity: A review of the literature. European Journal of Sport Science, 15(6), 523-532.

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