Track Coach

TC238 Editorial Column

From the Editor – RUSS EBBETS


Body dysmorphia. It’s one of those terms if you read it in an article you figure it has something to do with the body, you skip over it or you resolve to look it up later—which you forget about and never think about until you stumble over it again.

Body dysmorphia is defined an abnormal preoccupation with a body part or even the body as a whole. Google “world’s largest calves” for a clearer idea. With some understanding one could conclude that body dysmorphia might be a big problem with body builders. After all the aesthetics of shape and size are what the discipline is all about. And while I’m willing to admit body dysmorphia might have a higher incidence in this pursuit, I think those who consistently top out in their competitions have the direction and discipline to keep things under control.

But body dysmorphia can also go in the other direction. An anorexic has body dysmorphia. With body weight reduced to a bag of feathers the anorexic chases a horizon they’ll never approach until death does them part. The look of less becomes the goal, the appeal and the resolve to do whatever it takes is the signpost on the Road to Ruin.

I remember once in the locker room the guys having an argument over who had the skinniest arms. One after another they showcased biceps that would make Twiggy jealous. There was much laughing and kidding and it’s a safe bet there wasn’t 25 push-ups among the whole lot. I always questioned this state of
fitness but after all runners do run on their legs, not on their arms. The festivities ended and the subject was never addressed again.

Interestingly, one of the skinny arm contestants had transferred from Kansas. At that time Kansas had the top three shot putters in the NCAA. He told how the shot putters boasted and bested each other with the number of stretch marks they had on their chests from bench pressing. Sport specific, but also results driven. They were perennial champions with the stretch marks being simply an occupational hazard of throwing far.

Training at an elite level is not a natural or healthy thing to do to the body. There are consequences to be paid for all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into athletic accomplishment. Anatomical changes, be they skinny arms or stretch marks, may be the secondary consequences of goal achievement. It can be a sobering thought and I’d argue this is not body dysmorphia.

How or why do some people go off the rails? We live in a look good = be good culture. Hollywood and the cultural influencers of yesteryear sold cigarettes, dish soap and cars. Today’s influencers on Facebook, Twitter or TikTok drive body envy with slick camera angles or photoshopped images to create an ideal that is not real.

Coaches can get sucked into this vortex and strive for a good look as opposed to a good performer. In the movie Moneyball Brad Pitt’s character, GM Billy Beane, sits in amazement as his scouting team rates their baseball prospects as whether they have a “good face.” Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book Seabiscuit
detailed how the horse had everything wrong with it. Smallish, without the classic thoroughbred lines Seabiscuit more resembled something pulling a milk wagon with a future in dog food as opposed to a Triple Crown Winner.

The big difference between the athletic adaptations and dysmorphic adaptations is intent. For the athlete there is a drive, a pursuit to achieve with the anatomical changes a serious result versus the pursuit of body changes for some narcissistic end that leaves one mentally, physically and probably spiritually damaged.

One of the fundamentals principles of training theory is that of “conscientious participation” by the athlete­—know what you are doing and why you are doing it. Athletic participation should not be an endless stretch of junk miles or sets or reps. Training with intention is a pathway, or at least a direction that will change how one looks, how one feels and most importantly how one performs.