Athletes, Fitness, and the Lie of Skinnier Equals Faster

By Sam Lovett

The skinnier you are, the slower you become. In 2013, the 17-year-old star track run- ner Mary Cain was in line to be one of the fastest runners in the world. Nike was quick to sign her with a professional contract, offering their “unbelievable” training, a level of fitness few could obtain, and a life too good to reject. After Cain signed on with Nike, no one heard about her again — until the New York Times recently published her op-ed about where she had been the past few years. In this humbling and vulnerable piece, Cain told her story of how Nike coaches forced her to believe that smaller numbers on the scale mattered more than her time in a race. Their foundation of thinking was that the skinnier she was, the faster she would run, but that was not the case. Still, they continued to starve her, and as her weight went down, her race time went up. Fortunately, Cain is now on a better track, focusing on the balance of a healthy lifestyle while maintaining her incredible running ability. She is hoping to start competition again soon.

While this story had somewhat of a happy ending, the assumption that eating less, and therefore losing weight, will increase a runner’s capabilities of endurance and speed still remains a top priority for runners, coaches, and their supporters. At first glance, this view may seem plausible in some respect — the heavier one is, the slower one runs. However, food is the most powerful source of the body’s energy and strength, and when runners are deprived of food, their energy and strength decrease. This hap- pens because when the body works too hard to adequately power both activity and the sympathetic nervous system, the latter uses the remaining energy that would have been needed for the run, race, or entire meet.

It is vital that runners, and any athletes for that matter, understand that while it is beneficial to be fit and strong in order to compete, being skinny does not imply fitness. In fact, when the body is starved for too long, it goes into a survival state and holds on to any remaining fat in the body, therefore weakening the body even more. And while this explanation seems clear, too many athletes develop eating disorders because of the image portrayed by the world of athlete bodies.

This topic is a much longer discussion than a single article can encompass, yet still no one wants to speak about it because it is hard to be vulnerable when so many athletes are also expected to be tough and put up barriers. Conversations must start about eating habits in the running world so that runners know what actually nourishes the body. It must be stressed that every person needs a balance of healthy foods, exercising, and most importantly, rest. And while nourishing foods will sometimes make the number on the scale go up, surely, the number for the race time will go down.

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