Posted by: Joe English | August 3, 2009

Question: What causes runners to look unhealthy?

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

Brad from Baylor University wrote in with the following question. I’d love to hear what other marathon runners have to say about this, but I’ll offer my view below. First the question:

“Why do marathon runners look so unhealthy? They look like their bodies are eating themselves. They look much older, their skin is drawn, eyes sunken… it just doesn’t look healthy. I’ve never run a marathon and don’t want to after seeing what it does to people’s bodies. Why is this? You’d think exercise would do good things for the body. But marathon running looks like it turns a runner’s body into a starving body.”

Coach Joe English at the 2009 Eugene Marathon

Coach Joe English at the 2009 Eugene Marathon

Well Brad, I would start by saying that in my view most runners don’t look unhealthy. In fact, the vast majority of them look fit, happy, and well fed. In fact, in coaching thousands of runners over the years, I would say that many of them are 10-15 pounds overweight, rather than underweight. A lot of runners feel that they can “eat anything” and they often do. Many runners are also especially fond of beer, which keeps them with a bit more body fat around the middle of their frames than they would if they didn’t partake — but beer and running often go together.

When I initially read your question, I thought I would attach some pictures of world class runners, or even just average runners, to illustrate my point. From Kara Goucher to Desiree Ficker to Josh Cox to Tim DeBoom (google any of these for photos), it would be hard to say that these runners and Ironman triathletes look at all unhealthy. In fact, if you went through my photo archives on Flickr of just normal runners, I bet very few of them would look unhealthy either.

But if there are some runners out there that don’t look normal, who might they be and what might be causing that?

Well, if there are runners that look underweight (meaning they have sunken eyes and look too thin) then there are probably one of five factors at play:

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