-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

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 four factors at play:

#1 — Poor nutrition — If there is anything that would contribute to looking older, having poor skin, and appearing malnourished, it would first and foremost be a lack of good nutrition. Runners, just like anyone else, need to eat diets high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. A runner that fails to give their body proper nutrition — and I’m talking about quality not quantity here — is going to lack the nutrients to revitalize the body and keep it healthy. All of the cells in the body live, die and are regenerated on an on-going basis. Without the vitamins and minerals from healthy foods, the body struggles to do this. Runners put their bodies under a great deal of physical stress, so if they are not eating properly, it will show in their faces, the tone of their skin, and perhaps in their general demeanor.
#2 — Not eating enough useful calories — In addition to not getting enough nutritious foods, it is also possible for runners to fail to eat enough calories to fuel their workouts or enough protein to help their bodies recover and grow new muscle. Runners need to be especially careful not to load up on junk calories in their quest to feed their exercise habits, because processed foods may not be providing fuel that is even useful to the body. Again, runners need to eat whole grains and fresh foods to give their bodies what they need and to stay feeling and looking healthy.
#3 — Sun exposure — Years of time spent running in the sun can damage the skin and make people look older. This is, of course, true of anyone that spends a lot of time out in the sun. Keeping a hat on, wearing sun screen, and (again) eating healthy foods can combat the impact of the sun on the skin.
#4 — Eating disorders — any population there will be people with eating disorders that will lead them to look unhealthy and underweight. In addition, some people that have eating disorders or addictive personalities may use running as a tool to further their disorder or addictions. What I mean by that is that a person that already has an eating disorder may try to run and run to burn calories in order to get thinner. There have also been studies that have looked at how running can take the place of drug addiction in some recovering drug addicts — leading them to run as a way of keeping their addiction at bay. Both of these areas could lead to runners that “look bad” or unhealthy by running so much that they are losing a great deal of weight.
#5 — Caught in the act of a bad, bad, day — I’ll add one additional factor here that I didn’t include in my first draft of this article: getting caught in the midst of having a very bad day. If you were to catch a runner on film in the late miles of a marathon who has hit the wall, become extremely dehydrated, and perhaps pooped in their pants (yes, it has happened), those might qualify as making a runner “look bad” too. This wouldn’t be the cause of an extremely low-weight person, but it could certainly cause a runner to have bad color and generally look pretty nasty. In most cases, if you were to catch these folks about an hour later, after they have had a chance to shower and have some Gatorade, they’d probably look just fine.

So in summary, I’d say that if, in fact, you’ve seen runners that look bad, the causes are most likely related to their nutrition — either not eating enough nutritious foods or not eating enough useful foods. On balance, running is a healthy endeavor in that it strengthens the bones, muscles, joints and — of course — the heart and lungs. But running is just one piece of any individual’s lifestyle, so we need to look beyond that to see what might be causing a particular person to look unhealthy.

Thanks for the interesting question and I hope that some of my readers will get in on the debate here.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News


4 responses so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. Joe O'C August 4th, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    All of these thoughts are right on the money. I will add another if I can.

    It depends when the runner is seen. At the end of a race a runner should lok pretty spent. You want to have used up all you have in your tank.


  2. 2. coachjoeenglish August 4th, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Joe — I tend to agree with your comment. Depending how hard someone pushes themselves and how dehydrated they may get during a race could make them look rough at the end of a race. But an hour later, they usually look fine.

    Thanks for the comment!


  3. 3. Coach Dean August 5th, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    I think the sun damage and environmental impacts to our skin and appearance are huge.. and cumulative. The other thing I'll add is that people with more fat stores fill our creases and wrinkles giving a more youthful appearance. Less body fat means that these things stand out far more which may contribute to the appearance of aging. Our bodies may be in the condition of a 20 year old on the inside and a 80 year old on the outside….

  4. 4. Guy February 9th, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Your examples of runners to look at are young and should look that way. My girlfriend took up running religiously at age 40 and has worked her way up to half and full marathons. Although I do support her, she does look older than she really is to the point where I’ve been asked if I’m into older women even though I’m older than her. She does eat well and healthy, always has. Her body is certainly super tight and a woman at any age would love to have it and she is 46, but her face had really aged. Guess maybe it depends on person, age, and other factors. Wonder if she slows down will it reverse the damage.

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