The Obsessed Fortysomething Runner: “Runners’ Privilege”?

A friend of mine recently wrote this to me (which I’ve reprinted with her permission) about my column on runners and bodyshaming:

I think you’re missing a really important consideration–for a lot of people, especially women, there is a perception that cardio (running in particular) is the only way to lose weight. Basically, running is the “default” position, which explains a big part of your observation that runners don’t tend to say negative things about other sports when it comes to fitness. When you’re on top, you don’t need to point out that you exist!

Another aspect of this is that running doesn’t work for a lot of people, for various reasons ranging from boredom to biochemistry, and saying that’s the case isn’t actually attacking running, it’s just pointing out that some people run because they feel like they have to (again, especially women! see previous statement) without realizing that there are other ways to reach their goals that might suit them better. That needs to be okay, in general.

I’m saying this from the perspective of someone who recently read exactly the same articles that you linked and had a “wait what? I don’t have to do dumb running???” and has been making some decent progress with dumbbells, bodyweight work, diet and a bit of HIIT. When I have tried running and swimming in the past, they made me grumpy and hungry and just didn’t stick for whatever reason. I like lifting heavy things.

So I guess I just really wanted to tell you that the things you perceive as attack on the wonder that is running are actually really necessary and important. I agree that it’s lame/ridiculous to show photos of the scrawniest distance runners and claim that as the norm, but I don’t think it’s overly negative to tell stories of women who spend 10 hours a week on a treadmill trying to lose weight with no success, because that sucks and is totally preventable!

For reasons I’ll get into, I’m ultimately not persuaded that what I perceive as anti-running columns are actually just pro-“not having to run” columns. However, my friend’s observation that running is seen as the default weight loss/fitness regime did lead me to ponder whether there’s such a thing as “runner’s privilege.”

What do I mean by the term “runner’s privilege”? That is, I confess, shamelessly borrowed from the term “white privilege,” which is something you hear a lot about in law schools, as, among other things, a critique of slavish devotion to colorblind standards that nevertheless have a disparate impact on minorities. The essential idea is that if cultural norms reflect the values of the majority, then expecting everyone to follow those norms has no impact on members of the majority group, but might greatly impact members of minority groups. Because the norms reflect those of the majority group members, they enjoy a “privilege” of not having to do anything differently from what they’ve always done.

So, if there is such a thing as “runner’s privilege,” it would mean that running is the norm as far as exercise goes, and everything else is swimming upstream to catch people’s attention. My friend’s point, which is totally valid, is that people who don’t like running or can’t do it for whatever reason need to be able to see that there are plenty of healthy alternatives.

(I’ll add here that I’m not totally persuaded that running is, in fact, the default. After all, cycling is quite a big deal here in Portland, and of course, gyms are full of people who don’t use the cardio equipment. Not being a woman, though, I won’t debate the point of whether many women feel that they need to run if they want to lose weight.)

Be that as it may, I just can’t get from that valid point to the actual kinds of anti-running statements that I’ve complained about. Maybe it’s just that law school and a few years of practice showed me that taking a charitable tone against an adversary is often more effective than taking a confrontational tone, but if I were to try to pitch other activities toward people who don’t like running, I would do it like this:

Are you looking to lose some pounds but you don’t like running? No problem! Some people love running, but it isn’t for everyone, and there are plenty of other ways you can get fit and strong, and lose weight in the process. If you like being outdoors, you might try cycling. If you want a terrific all-around body workout that’s non-impact, try swimming. Or stationary rowing. If you also want to get stronger, mix in some weightlifting. (No, you won’t bulk up.)

There’s absolutely nothing there that I would take issue with. But that’s not the sort of stuff I’ve been complaining about when I write about lifters who trash running. I’m writing about charlatans who claim that running will make you gain weight, or trash your knees, or whatever other boogeyman they bring out.

True, some people who take up running to lose weight do in fact end up gaining weight. Often it is a case of believing that one can compensate for the running by increasing one’s caloric intake. Thus, the hypothetical case of the poor woman who spends 10 hours a week on the treadmill and gains weight* doesn’t prove that running makes you gain weight. At most, it shows that not everyone loses weight just by running. (Conversely, there are many of us who disprove the apparent assertion that running will always make you gain weight.)

You have to wonder how real this is. I mean, even if someone is just walking at a 4 mph pace, that would be 40 miles a week. Walking is more efficient than running, so burns fewer calories on a per mile basis, but I’d estimate it still around 2400-2800 calories per week, or 400 calories per day.

In the end, I’m not sure how much my friend and I really disagree. She does acknowledge that showing pictures of scrawny-looking distance runners is pretty lame, and I agree that no one should feel that they have to run if they want to lose weight. I just think that providing misleading information, as I think some of the lifters who hate running do, does nobody any good.

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