The body positive guide to falling in love with running (and your body)

Amy Abrahams
Contributor

Have you ever looked at a runner and thought, ‘I wish I could do that… but I can’t’? Well, that’s how I used to think too – before I somehow ran three marathons. To me, sporty people were another species and gym kit the stuff of nightmares. So clingy! So revealing! Not to mention all that sweat involved… I hated the idea of exercise because I used to feel so self-conscious: I didn’t want to look ‘bad’, I didn’t want to fail. It was only when I challenged these worries that I began to love running – and it was through running that I learned to love fitness and celebrate my body for what it could do, not for what it looked like.

Here’s me after my second marathon – I love this photo because I am so freakishly happy, even though I was knackered and my stomach was painfully bloated (thank you energy gels 😬). I love it because I never thought I’d be this type of person – someone in gym kit who did things like exercise and still smiled. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ I owe running a lot, as it started me on a journey from HATING my legs and wanting to hide them to appreciating their mighty-thigh power. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ When I was a teenager, no one said “Thick thighs save lives” and big round bums weren’t the insta body-part must-have (though FFS, folk – body parts aren’t TRENDS. All bodies are great!). When I was a teenager, “waif” was in. It’s glorious how things have changed and how diversity is more celebrated now. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ I’m still always learning how to value my body because my body is always changing. However, from a body positive point of view, I also appreciate that I am white and (fake) blonde and have certain physical and size privileges. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ So I need YOUR help! Tell me in the comments below: who are the body positive runners you love? ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ I need to know. I want to follow them and be inspired by them and help spread the word about what they do. So, on your marks, get set, GO! (But… if it’s hard to think of any, then we know we have a problem and need to change things…)

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Anxieties about exercise are common – when Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign launched, it reported that 75% of women want to be more active, but were inhibited because of fear of being judged on their appearance and ability. But fitness is a club open to all, with no special membership required. It doesn’t matter what you look like, how heavy you lift, how often you go to the gym or how fast you are. If you want to get active and start running, all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Here are seven ways to get started:

1. Rethink your fitness goals

I used to only have one motivation to exercise – to get thin. But struggling with body image and struggling with food, I never got ‘thin enough’ and I certainly never felt happy trying. But when I signed up to run a half-marathon for charity, my goal became ‘taking part’ and challenging myself.

I realised it was time to stop punishing my body and consider it something that needed changing. Once I did that, I discovered there was fun to be had in building up from couch to 5k (there are great apps for this), that feel-good endorphins were worth chasing, and that the positive effect on my mental health was worth the sweat alone.

A lot of people have been asking me – totally reasonably – if I've been running lately. After all, I've done three marathons and written endlessly about the joys of running. And the truth is, no, I haven't been running much. A bit here and there, three miles or so, if I want, but for the most part there's been an official lack of running. Maybe even a worrying lack of running. But is it really a worry? It's OK to take a break and explore new things. It's OK to say, I'm tired, I just want to stay in. And actually, my not-running status has meant I've found other ways to clear my head instead. What I have been doing is walking – walking to work, walking to meet friends, and doing endurance walks like @racetothestones. I've also enjoyed getting back into the gym and lifting some weights. During marathon training, I missed the feeling of lifting heavy things and feeling my muscles grow. Fitness is part of my life now – but that doesn't mean I live by a rule book. It's OK to not do what people expect. It's OK to mess with people's preconceptions about what you're all about. I know I'll get back into running at some point, but in the meantime, I'll try to find other ways to keep active that make me excited instead. To make fitness part of your life, it makes sense to listen to what you *need* in your life. Right now, the gentle sweat and the thoughtful pace of walking sustains me most days. It makes me feel good, and I think that's all the motivation I need right now. So find your groove, find what makes you smile – walk, run, jump, lift if you desire. Just do things your way. Your pace. For you.

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So the challenge for you is this: why are you running? Think of a reason that’s not appearance-related. How do you want to *feel*? Strong? Confident? Happy? Proud of yourself? Find reasons that have nothing to do with weight and hold on to them.

2. Watch a race to see how runners look

The London marathon on 22 April is the perfect opportunity to see what a runner looks like – and here’s a spoiler: there is no one way a runner looks. With some 40,000 people taking on the capital’s greatest run, you’ll find all ages and sizes, and all kinds of reasons for running. You’ll also see that fitness means sweat and red cheeks and messy hair and bodies that wobble and bounce and jiggle and ripple. If the only runners’ bodies you see are the picture-perfect ones on the cover of magazines or Instagram #fitspo accounts, look out to the street instead. That’s where the real inspiration is.  

Here I am 13 miles in at Tower Bridge lapping it up before it all went wrong… Turns out my third marathon was the hardest, the slowest, and the most painful, and I have to process my feelings as I'm a bit upset. But the main thing is, I DID IT. Stomach cramps hit soon after this picture and didn't go for TEN miles. Really had to dig deep to keep on going. Could not have done it without my amazing family, boyfriend and friends cheering me on, plus the incredible crowd who roared with love and support every time I started crying. Raised some great money for @heads_together and @samaritanscharity so that's the main thing – it was hard, but I did it. Feeling the love and wonder for human kind right now who displayed incredible determination, spirit and strength today. @londonmarathon – thank you for the challenge, thank you for giving me an incredible day, even when it hurt. #reasontorun #headstogether

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3. Care less about what others think

I only used to exercise at night so that people wouldn’t see me. However, it turns out that most people are too focused on their own lives to think about what I look like in my leggings – and that often, if someone does stare, they’re thinking, ‘I wish I could do that too…’ And you know what, if someone does say something negative? Then screw them. I have been heckled, I’m not going to lie, but some idiot does not get to dictate what YOU do. Don’t give them that power. The greatest ‘F-you’ you can do is to Keep. On. Going. This is your choice, your life, your body – and you get to enjoy it however you want.

17 miles, four hail storms, and one tiny knackered sweaty fist pump later, here I am. (I'm happy, honest.) What a crazy run that was. Hard work. Amazing sights. One short break under a tree while the rain violently lashed down. Big thanks to you all for amazing support over the past few weeks while I've been in a bit of a funk, and special props to the people who have urged me to listen to podcasts. Today I took in two episodes of This American Life (one about Trump's travel ban on refugees, the other about two girls switched at birth. Both extraordinary programmes) plus some Serial (yes, yes, I'm behind the times, I know). Definitely made my run easier. And I also just focused on running my own race, rethinking my marathon goals (forget pace – just fucking make it through!!) and so I feel like today alone was a triumph. So there we go. Finally, a better run. And now chocolate milk and a fish finger sandwich awaits – a meal of champions, surely? #vlm2017 #runyourownrace

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4. Know you’re amazing

When I was starting out, just trying to run for more than two minutes seemed impossible. But with perseverance, I found I could run one minute more, then five minutes more, then ten, and onwards. As the minutes and miles built up, so did my self belief.

Whatever your goal, whatever your distance, believe in yourself that you can. And while you’re there, congratulate yourself on the journey too – not just when you reach your goal. Feel grateful for the legs that carry you, praise your arms for propelling you forward, cherish your brain for making your body move, embrace the sweat that keeps you cool. You are amazing. Your body is amazing. As it is right now, every step of the way.

5. But remember that not every run will be a victory run

Look, the struggle is real, OK? Some runs will be harder than others, but that doesn’t mean every run will be bad. From the new jogger to the Olympic elite, we all have days that don’t go to plan – when we’re tired, or grumpy, hormonal or busy. So give yourself a break and try again another day. I promise you a better run is right around the corner.

6. Let go of food guilt

Know this: you are entitled to food all the time – regardless of if you have exercised or not! Don’t let food become part of a fitness equation. You get to eat that pizza, even if you didn’t go to the gym. If you have a muffin, you DON’T need to work it off. You’re not ‘undoing’ your gym class if you eat chocolate. Each for energy, eat for pleasure but don’t let it consume your thoughts and definitely don’t use it to guilt yourself into fitness. Make fitness a positive space, guilt-free.

I like to call this photo series, Amy Eats Burger. Because that is what I am doing. Because guess what, it is OK to eat burgers. I am a health writer and I try to be an advocate of health for both mind AND body, which means balance and kindness and listening to your body and not making people feel ashamed of how they look or what they eat or how often or little they move. You can write about food and bodies and exercise and still do this, I believe. I'm sharing this pic because I am so angry right now about: 🍔* Diet culture 🍔* The endless pressures women feel about their bodies 🍔* The way that despite the rise in body positivity, things still aren't changing quickly enough 🍔* How people don't listen to the women who say "We need to hear about other things, we don't want to see this" 🍔* How people don't choose to change these negative messages even when they have some power to do so 🍔* How in the run-up to Christmas and January we are bombarded with even more messages about changing our bodies for fairly arbitrary notions such as 'Party season' or 'New year' – I often try to stay calm on here, make friendly, safe content, things that seem professional, things that appeal – but right now, I'm fed up of so many things. The representation of perfect lives, the perpetuation of blandness and conformity, the elevation of people lacking credentials. – I'm angry that despite my best efforts, I still HEAR this noise about food and bodies. That despite KNOWING BETTER, I am not immune. I am so tired of wasting time thinking about food and my body, and so sometimes I can't stay quiet – even if it means people don't like what I say. – So anyway, here's to burgers. And salads. And everything in between. Here's to eating and living and sustaining and nourishing and feeling great and feeling full and feeling happy. Here's to food. Here's to enjoying your dinner, folks. Here's to enjoying every single bite. #lovefood #loveyourself

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7. Choose your fitness inspiration wisely

Never follow anyone online who makes you feel bad. If they’re focused on diets and it’s making you feel shamed, then unfollow. If they’re making you feel slow because they’re all about pace, unfollow. If they don’t talk about exercise’s amazing effect on mental health when all you want to do is run to feel good, unfollow. Seize control of your feed. Fitness is about so much more than appearances – find more diversity online and follow the people who love it the way you want to love it, too.

I recently wrote this post on my Instagram asking people to share who inspires them to get moving, and here are some of the people I love who I reckon you’ll love too:

Kelly Roberts (@kellykkroberts) – this US runner, blogger and self-called ‘Former president of the I F*cking Hate Running Club’ is all about redefining what strength looks like. 

Jessamyn Stanley (@mynameisjessamyn) – this yoga teacher and body positivity advocate will get you loving your body and throwing some shapes on the mat.

Alexandra Heminsley (@Hemmograms) – the author of Running Like A Girl (2014) was a huge inspiration for my own fitness journey and a trailblazer for getting women running for the love of it. 

Shazia Hossen (@_shazfit) – a personal trainer, Nike’s first UK Hijab Ambassador and founder of modesty fitness range SH Athletics, Shazia will help you on your mission to feel strong.

Bryony Gordon (@bryonygordon) – the Mad Girl author is running the London Marathon in her underwear with plus-size model Jada Sezer to raise money for Heads Together and show that runners come in all shapes and sizes.

And head over to This Girl Can to find out more reasons women love to exercise and what it can do for you.

Got some body-positive fitness tips of your own to share? Find me on Instagram and tell me what you think @Amy_Abrahams.

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