“There’s an athlete in every body”. I used to think quotes like this were total crap. I’d been involved in the sports world long enough to know everyone expected real athletes to occupy a certain body type. Papers, magazines and the internet all portrayed the distance runner aesthetic to be a lighter, leaner version of my own, with very little coverage of those demonstrating otherwise.
Still, my self-rated ‘larger-than-average runner’s body' seemed to be serving me pretty well. I barely batted an eyelid when my first set of GB kit arrived and I couldn’t pull the size small shorts past my shins. Nor when the race commentators called me “strong” or “someone to shield behind”. That same strength helped me push on in training and stay consistently injury free. That strength kept me happy, healthy and keeping up with the boys.
As I progressed to the senior level, I soon lost sight of that perceived advantage. I’d come to learn about ‘power-to-weight ratios’, demonstrated by those striding past me in races I wanted to win. I failed to consider the years of training and development that had gradually shaped their body composition. And, after years of internalising sports and diet culture, I started to view my inability to naturally achieve the ‘athletic aesthetic’ as a personal failure.
So, I did what I thought I needed to: dialled up my training and adopted a ‘clean’ approach to eating. More training, more discipline and more sacrifices brought more progress, satisfaction and praise.
I wasn’t naive. I understood the basics of nutrition, the concept of periodisation and the importance of rest. Yet, as this new approach drew me closer to my warped notion of success, I failed to recognise I was heading down a one way street. Little by little, more was becoming less. Less strength, less endurance, less enjoyment, less success - and I didn’t see it coming.
I had spiralled into a chronic energy deficit (RED-S), where my whole body - from my legs, to my metabolism and reproductive system - started slowing down, closely followed by my running times. I was finally doing what I thought all elite athletes did, so couldn't understand why I wasn't reaping the rewards. And, since my dedication was encouraged by those I looked to for guidance and support, I struggled to see the cause of my demise was in my own hands.
I've been on a journey since then. One that has overhauled my perspective on life, health and sports culture in a way that only happens when it takes you to unpleasant places. It took me years to let go of the need to look and act an elite athlete, but the moment I did, I became one. I've come to realise there really is an athlete in every body. And now, I want to urge you to get to know yours better. Devote your energy and focus to learning what your unique form and physiology can do for you. The sooner you can learn how to harness the tools you were born with, the sooner you can become unstoppable.
The sooner you can learn how to harness the tools you were born with, the sooner you can become unstoppable.