Our Bodies, Our Selves

You can’t trade your body in for a new, improved model. Accepting the natural strengths and weaknesses of the body you have is the key to becoming the best you can be


Posted: 8 August 2003
by John Bingham

This section is adapted from No Need For Speed - A Beginner's Guide To The Joy Of Running, by John Bingham. Buy this book!

Many adult-onset athletes believe that living an active lifestyle would be easier if they could trade the body they have for the body they want. I did. Part of my continuing fantasy was finding a training program that would alter the essential features of my body. The fantasy was that the program would alter my body before I did any perspiring.

If my legs were just a little longer, my shoulders a little broader, and my waist a little narrower, I would have had a head start on at least looking fit. I figured that if I could look fit first, I would be more motivated to actually get fit. Like many overweight people, I assumed that if I were thin, I would be fit.

That’s why for me, every new fitness regime began with dieting. I wasn’t ready to start moving the body I had. I wanted to get it down to a size and shape that was easier to move. Looking back, it’s no wonder that I hated the idea of exercising. To me, exercising meant first giving up all the foods I liked.

I once chastised a music student for not practicing, and she replied that when she got good enough, she’d start practicing. I tried to explain that it didn’t work that way. She shrugged and walked away. I was no more aware than that student. I was waiting until I got into shape before I got into shape. I never put the two elements together.

Until I started running, I never understood that the shape, form, weight, strength, and fitness level of my body were the result of the perspiration, not the diet. I viewed my body like wrapping paper. My body hid what was inside so that no one could guess the contents. No one could see what the smoking was doing to my lungs. No one could see what the drinking was doing to my liver. No one could see what the poor food choices were doing to my arteries.

Of course, it’s much easier to get thin than to get fit. Getting thinner is simply a matter of denying yourself nourishment for as long as you can. If you reduce your caloric intake enough, your body will begin to devour itself, and in a few weeks or months, you’ll be thinner. But you won’t be fit. In fact, it’s likely that you’ll be in worse shape than before you lost weight. Fitness requires perspiration. There’s no shortcut around that fact.

My Legs Are Too Short: Excuses for Being Unfit
I’m not sure where we get the ideas we have about our bodies. I’ve heard people complain about the images in the media, the cocaine-addict look of models and the you-can-never-be-too-rich-or-too-skinny way of thinking. I suppose that contributes, but I suspect that most body image problems go back farther than the latest fashion magazine.

For me, it started as a youngster shopping for pants with a little more room in the seat and a little less length in the legs. I had the impression that somehow my legs weren’t quite what they ought to be. At least, they weren’t what I wanted them to be.

This gave me a convenient excuse when I was unable to achieve my athletic goals as a youngster. If I wasn’t as fast as the other kids, couldn’t jump as high, or hit the ball as far, it was because my legs were too short. Eventually, I gave up on athletics. What was the point? I would never be able to overcome my genetic deficiencies.

So I began an active life on legs that I was sure were too short. Too short for what, I didn’t know—they were just too short. I only knew, or believed, that whatever it was, my legs were too short.

For me, it was legs. For others, it’s a stomach that’s too big or hips that are too wide. I’ve talked to people who aren’t active because they have bad feet, bad knees, funny toes, or floppy ears. It doesn’t matter what part of your body you belittle. Chances are you’ve found the part that allows you to excuse yourself from being more active.

I say this because I’ve met people who have really bad knees but have learned how to be prudent in their training. And they’ve accomplished all of their running goals! The key is learning to train and perspire sensibly. Too often, the problem isn’t our bodies. It’s our stubborn refusal to take the bodies we have into consideration when we start to get more active.

Transforming your sedentary adult body into a tool that you can use to achieve your athletic dreams takes more patience than discipline, more tenacity than talent. It takes learning to respect both the features and functions of your body.

No Pain, No Gain: How Not to Justify Abusing Your Body

I learned to respect my body the hard way—by abusing it. In my prerunning life, I abused it with smoking, drinking, overeating, and pushing myself to extremes. I expected my body to forgive me for asking it to go beyond itself and to forget about the damage I was doing to it. I expected my body to recover from the abuse without any help from me.

Lying on a gurney in an emergency room, hooked up to an EKG machine, hearing the doctor tell my wife that my blood pressure was 185 over 130 had no effect on me whatsoever. I was only 28 years old. Surely, it was too soon to have to start worrying about things like high blood pressure. The pain in my chest seemed a small price to pay for the fun I was having.

Fifteen years later, when I started to become more active, I took the same gung-ho attitude into my running. I was sure that my body would react differently to the stresses of training than other people’s bodies did. If the "normal" body needed to rest 3 days a week, my body needed only 1 day. If the "normal" body could handle increasing mileage by 10 percent per week, I was sure that mine could handle a 30-percent increase.

I transferred my abusive attitude to an activity that was more acceptable. I took pride in the aches and pains I was creating in my body. I abused my body by overtraining. The more I limped around on battered joints, the more I felt like an athlete. In those days, we joked that if I were in any better shape, I wouldn’t be able to walk at all.

I’m not alone in this. Walk through the field lined up at any local 10-K, and you’ll think you’re at an orthopedic convention. You’ll hear about every imaginable physical impairment and see every imaginable contrivance for keeping a body together. You’ll see tape, elastic bandages, splints, and tubes wrapped around every conceivable part of the runners’ bodies. Like I did, these injured runners seem to take pride in the fact that they are "playing with pain." They’ve convinced themselves that the tape and tubes are medals of honor.

Have you ever seen a runner in the lead pack of a major marathon wearing a knee brace? Have you ever? Of course not. Elite runners know better. They know that their bodies are their primary assets. They’re not going to risk a permanent injury to finish one race.

Using—Not Abusing—The Body You Have

The truth is that, as adults, many of us are convinced we could be and do all that we want if only we had the right body. We spend our lives living in the darkness of what we could have been. Like the boxer in On the Waterfront, we believe that with the right body, we "could have been a contender." Unfortunately, the only way to make sure that you get the body you want is to be very careful when picking your parents. Genetics may not be the only criterion, but it’s an important one that we can’t overcome as adults.

At one race, I was doing my prerace warmup near Bill Rodgers, who won both the Boston and New York marathons four times each. I couldn’t help smiling as I watched him. All the evidence I needed to explain why he is who he is and why I am who I am was right there in front of me. He looked like an antelope as he warmed up. Everything about his body was right. The way his feet were connected to his ankles, his ankles to his legs, and his legs to his hips was exactly the way you would design the body of a marathoner. I bet he hasn’t had any body fat since he was 6 months old.

As I looked down and compared his body to my body, I thought, "Good grief!" All the parts had the same names, but they surely didn’t have the same look. I suppose I should have been upset, but I just had to laugh. How strange, I thought, that in a few minutes, he and I would be lining up together.

It’s very difficult for us as adults to accept that someone with essentially the same body we have has achieved every athletic accomplishment on record. Olympic athletes don’t have an extra lung to help them breathe. They may have a gift, they may have talent, they may have the training, but they don’t have anything extra. When we accept that the bodies of those more physically gifted are fundamentally no different than ours, we can begin to accept and understand that our bodies react to training in exactly the same way that theirs do.

This point was emphasized to me one evening when I had dinner with Khalid Khannouchi, who broke the world record for the marathon in 1999. He and I ran the same marathon in Chicago on the same course on the same day. He finished in 2:05:42. I finished in just over 5:30:00. In fact, I heard the announcement that he had set the world’s record as I was approaching mile 11 of the racecourse!

As we talked about our preparation and training—the tempo runs, the speedwork, the long runs—it became clear that we were talking about the same things. The difference wasn’t in the content or quality of the workouts, it was only in the speed at which we were running them. Speed was the variable. Effort was the constant. Our bodies react the same way to stress and recovery. What feels like an all-out effort to a world record holder feels the same to someone at the back of the pack.

Accepting this truth about my body was one of the first steps toward making genuine progress as a runner. Accepting the truth that no body can do more than 100 percent was a revelation to me. My best was my best. I could train hard, smart, and with intensity and purpose. The only thing that would change was what my best would be. My best would never be Khannouchi’s or anyone else’s best.

It finally clicked that as flawed, fragile, and out of shape as I had allowed my body to become, it was still the body that I was going to have to use. I couldn’t trade it in for a new, improved one. I was going to get where I wanted to be in this body, with these feet. That’s true for you, too. It isn’t a matter of getting the body you want, it’s a matter of doing the most you can with the body you have.

This revelation made all the difference for me, and I think it will for you, too. You may never become the best, but you can become your best. You can find ways to improve for the rest of your life. You can find new challenges and new means for expressing your athleticism. You just have to learn to do all these new things with your old body.


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