Where are all the fat runners?
Body positivity has come a long way in society, but what if you want to run? I talk to Marci Braithwaite - who goes by The Fat Athlete on social media - about the challenges larger runners face.
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In my quest to highlight those who are extending the reach of running culture, this week, I’ve spoken to Marci “Mia” Braithwaite AKA The Fat Athlete.
She started her personal running journey 15 years ago, to lose weight. After documenting her progress online, she followed a suggestion from her hero, Mirna Valerio of the Fat Girl Running blog to become a running coach.
Now, certified by the USATF and RRCA, Mia is on a mission to help runners in larger bodies.
“I became a coach for people like me, who are in larger bodies, who struggle with getting started in running. They don't see their bodies represented in the community very often, and oftentimes don't think that they can be runners.”
What have been the positives along the way?
“People come and tell me they feel like they can do this now because they saw me doing it - because I called myself out in terms of using the word fat, which is a very controversial word.”
Indeed, there is much debate about the importance of weight and BMI in modern healthcare. Weight is one factor in health, of course - one metric that you are able to opt out of at your check-up - and more and more doctors are looking at the full lifestyle when making diagnoses.
And the downsides?
“Existing on social media in a large body.”
I first made contact with Mia on Threads, the new Twitter/X from Instagram. Her handle @the_fat_athlete was as impactful as she intended, and after reading her daily inspirational messages a few times, I really began to look forward to her takes.
In stark contrast to how it is (and has been for a while) over on X/Twitter, it’s been pretty fun over on Threads so far, but as more and more people make their way over there, I suspect that’ll change to that familiarly toxic environment. We’ll enjoy the pleasantness while we can.
“There haven't been the trolls telling me that what I'm doing is killing people, which makes no sense, because I'm actively encouraging movement in all bodies. People just want to have something to get angry about or bring other people down with.”
Armed with the logic that a large person being visible and accepted encourages people to remain fat, those trolls rampantly shame others from behind their keyboards.
But it doesn’t make sense.
Health, as with anything, is a spectrum, and weight and BMI are just some of the indicators. Diet and activity can play larger parts, and attacking someone who is encouraging people to be active seems like a negative movement in a situation that’s already negative for many.
What advice do you have for larger runners?
“The biggest thing you need to do - whether you are in a large body or not - is to strength train. If you want to be a runner, and you want to be able to do it without injury, strengthening is imperative to building those support structures in your body.”
The support structures Mia is talking about are the hips and legs and posterior chain. The stronger your body is, the more comfortably you can propel yourself forward. Building a plan that suits your body and its needs is important here.
“The other thing is mindset. You have to reduce your expectations if you're starting in a larger body. You're not going to be able to run an 8-minute mile when you first start out. Running for 20 seconds may be enough for you at first. You have to be able to accept that.”
“Honor your own journey, and know that your progress is your own, and it's not related to anybody else.”
Mark Twain got it right when he said that comparison is the death of joy. What do you do then if you have a larger body and you want to run and socialize, but all you see on Instagram is run clubs filled with skinny people with “runners’ bodies” laughing through 5ks at speeds you can only dream of?
How and why to aid diversity
“If you can get runners in larger bodies to join your group runs, take pictures of them so other people can see them. You can't be what you can't see. Show that people in larger bodies are welcome at your run clubs.”
“If you're in a body like mine, you're going to think those people run at a 10-minute mile pace, and you won’t fit in, and won’t have anybody to run with so will be left behind. It's really a matter of making it clear in your online community.”
“There are people who are actively running at 15-, 16-, 17-minute miles and they want community too.”
We discuss the increasing inclusivity in organized races, including larger-sized commemorative t-shirts and longer cut-off times. Not only is broadening the margins the right thing to do for society - even if it’s just performatively - it’s also a wise business decision.
“I was never able to actually wear the first half marathon shirt that I ended up getting. When I went to the Chicago Marathon expo, I told Martinus [Evans, previously interviewed, link below] that the only place in the entire expo that had clothing that could fit me was in his little Slow AF corner.”
“There are runners who are in larger bodies who want to be a part of this, and we have money.”
Why do you run?
“My current goal is to find the joy in movement. If you're moving because it feels good, and because it does good things for you, you're much more likely to continue doing it.”
How have your reasons changed over time?
“I started running to lose weight, and I lost about 80 pounds in that first year that I was restricting my diet and running in an unhealthy way. It took me several years to figure out how to run in a healthy way. That’s when I allowed myself to fuel my body for my running, as opposed to restricting for weight loss.”
“It's been quite a journey to get to this point where I run because it feels good. I run because it brings clarity. I run without headphones and without a running buddy most times because it helps me to reflect on things that I've been through during the day.”
What do you do to make running suck less?
“When I'm in the midst of a high-effort run and it sucks, I focus on my body. What's happening in that moment? If I know that I've got another 90 seconds of this long sprint or whatever, I think about how I can adjust my efforts so that this still feels comfortable, but hard.”
“The intersection of those two things is where I make running suck less - finding the space where I'm putting in the effort, but I don’t feel like I’m dying.”
“It's mindset. It's checking in with my body. It's knowing that this is hard, but it's not too hard and it's over soon. It's being able to find that space within me where I know that what I'm doing is going to benefit me.”
While Marci has worked to make great progress on her journey to finding joy, many in similar bodies are yet to start theirs.
Those runners are out there, and even if they’re at the back of the pack, know that they do want to run and join in with all the things everyone else is doing. We just have to make sure that they know that they can. Marci’s doing her bit.
Ways to make running suck less covered today
Integrate strength training into your running practice
Manage your expectations when you’re beginning
Remain flexible with your effort while running
Ensure your running space is accessible to all
Focus on finding joy in running
Running Sucks Haiku of the Week
I went for a run
Through Hollywood, nonetheless
Then we talked ‘bout books
This past weekend I hosted my first running event in Los Angeles.
I asked Lindsey Freeman if she ever held a book event in L.A. and when she said she hadn’t, I sprang into action, getting us set up in the most prestigious shopping mall in town. The weather was warm but the event was very, very cool (even at 9am on a Sunday morning).
Read my take on Lindsey’s book, and then go and buy it and read it.
Read my feature on Martinus Evans and his Slow AF Run Club:
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