The Bodies We Want

I’ll let you into a wee secret; I don’t look great naked. Pigeon chest, skinny arms, freakishly out of proportion calves balanced on delicate ankles, and you definitely don’t want to see my toenails! Maybe not the most alluring of images.

Now obviously this is a subjective viewpoint, and one succumbing to the prescribed narrative of accepted beauty norms; but essentially when I wander round a swimming pool, the gathered ladies (and men) aren’t often peeking over the top of their shades for an eyeful of my chiselled torso.

There was a time when first discovering a previously untapped aptitude for mountain running that I believed the opposite must be true. After all, I had a visible six-pack and had become an athlete, surely the hours of effort were reaping tangible rewards in bodily appearance? Unfortunately those illusions were short-lived as my eyes flicked over a newspaper article and I realised the malnourished spectacle with the hollowed cheeks perched atop a podium was actually me!

Skinny but fast!

I despair this time of year at the ‘new year, new you’ bullshit life-changing TV programmes, featuring hapless dreamers seeking to discover a new self by going to the gym for twenty minutes, twice a week. If I sound overly dismissive then I apologise, but watching someone who purportedly wants an incredible bodily transformation unashamedly refusing to even keep a food diary does indicate a certain lack of commitment, especially on prime-time television! These shows tend to trivialise the whole process, failing to reiterate the most simple messages of all, that those people need to commit to a lifetime of exercise, and that we all ultimately get the bodies we deserve. Input equals output.

A few years back I ran a successful bootcamp business which taught me that weight loss is an incredibly complex issue with no ‘one size fits all’ approach to success. The root causes of weight gain were invariably psychological and so the decision to change had to come from deep within, like the decision to quit smoking, rather than from a transient notion driven by targeted January marketing schemes. It brought us few surprises when the stated and emotionally charged intentions of our clients at the end of a transformational week ultimately fell by the wayside, and yet there were a percentage of our bootcampers whose lives genuinely did swing on those seven days. Long after deciding to wind down the business and focus on new challenges, emails would still arrive from clients who’d halved their bodyweight, completed first marathons, triathlons and sportives, who’d genuinely changed mindsets and undertaken a different life path. They’d taken control and got the bodies, and mental and physical wellbeing that they deserved.

I’m currently attending a circuits session three days a week and I love it. As an individual who almost always trains alone, I’m revelling in the group motivation and set start times that guarantee session success. Strength sessions for injury prevention are essential in any ageing runner’s approach and yet often they’re the hardest to bear, planks and press-ups lacking the allure of skipping through pristine peaks and forests. The various attendees must all have different motivations and it’s set me questioning mine. Deep within, there’s a vanity that’d love to forge me towards those societal norms of attractiveness. I have the inherent confidence of someone who feels in total control of bodily performance, if I want to drop half a stone, I simply eat a bit less, train a bit more and drop half a stone. So armed with that knowledge I’m occasionally drawn to the magnet of muscular appearance, fully aware that if I want to get bigger, stronger and more toned then I can, simply by altering my training and protein intake. It’s a desire usually quashed the minute Inov8’s hit thirty degree granite and heather; what use are big guns when my primary drive is to move rapidly through ground that most can barely walk?

So as a human race we have to accept that undeniably we get the bodies we deserve. I’ve no doubt that many people feel a disconnect, as if their shape is somehow predetermined, blaming genetics above lifestyle as a handy excuse for self-driven unhealthiness. For some of us it’s a choice, and I have to accept, as I do every year, that prioritisation and ambition are key drivers, with compromise unavoidable. The shape I am is a facet of a pretty specialised set of requirements and compared to the norm I’m at the extreme ends of bodily ability. To retain that ability means accepting my shape. I can console myself with the knowledge that others go to even further degrees, pro cyclists can often barely walk a couple of miles, so specialist are their adaptations. As much as I may admire the like of Chris Froome, next to him I probably look like Anthony Joshua. He’s also made that decision to sacrifice looks for performance, although his multi-million pound earning legs probably soften the blow.

Not all elite fell runners are afflicted with that ‘needs a good feed’ physique. Ricky Lightfoot and Paul Tierney spring to mind, men with the rare mix of upper-body muscle and elite endurance capability. However, as a Fireman and ex All-Ireland winning hurler respectively, their lives demand bodily attributes that mine simply doesn’t, and so my underused upper limbs retain their long-settled appearance.

At the crux of this issue, deep down we have to admit that not only do we get the bodies we deserve but we also get the bodies we want. I often train fifteen hours or more a week so if I really desired it I could triple my calorie intake, focus on weights work and look dramatically bigger in a matter of months, but I don’t really want that because it’d likely destroy other abilities I hold dearer. Likewise, those January dieters purporting to crave weight-loss, health and tone will attain all of those things if they actually want it more than they want alcohol, comfort food and the avoidance of hard exercise. The elephant in the room where marketing is concerned is that invariably they skip over the key element in all this which is hard graft and sacrifice. I’d love to be World Mountain Running Champion but I can’t claim to really WANT it, otherwise I’d sacrifice a hell of a lot more to get there. I’m content with my lot, fast but not the fastest, athletic but not muscular. As with all things, finding happiness in what you have may be more satisfying than craving change, but please don’t moan about what you’re not, if you want to change than go change, quietly, determinedly and commitedly.

Sermon over, now roll on next month when the annual resolution farce blows over for another year.

Soaked, frozen, knackered and happy. Getting the body you want takes a lifetime of hard work, not fads and short-term resolutions.