If you’ve ever been to the Ironman World Championship, you’ve surely experienced the self-esteem trauma of standing in your bathing suit at Dig Me Beach next to a few hundred of the fittest bodies on the planet. It can be daunting and downright depressing–even when you’re at your own peak fitness. The professional athletes–with their perfectly chiseled muscles and popping veins–are at the extreme end of the uber-fit spectrum. But even the pros have body image issues. Despite looking like ideal specimens of health and fitness, some are just as self-conscious as you and me. I polled a number of the pros set to race on Saturday in Kona to gain some candid insight into their body image perceptions and what precautions they take to look their best–or whether they even care–when camera lenses are trained on their every move. Their answers–which I’ve kept strictly anonymous, aside from identifying each athlete’s gender–may surprise you. (Note: I polled an equal number of men and women for this survey, but the majority of responses came from female pros.)
Are you self-conscious about how you look during an important race where there are lots of spectators and lots of media–and therefore lots of cameras?
[female] You try to at least attempt to look presentable, although It may not happen organically just due to the nature of what we’re doing out there in a very hurried fashion. I take a shower the morning before a race, shave, cleanse, put sponsor tattoos on and try to secure the hair-do–the whole nine yards! However, it is a real challenge to look glamorous at mile 22 of the run in an Ironman. It is what it is, and everyone is in the same boat. The camera will capture some outrageous unattractive facial expressions, bloated beer gut looking bellies and even “camel toe” crime scene situations. But this, too, is part of the sport we love!
[female] Are not all triathletes self-conscious? So yes, I am too. I find it very important to look good while racing and I do think I race better when I know I look OK. I have noticed in all my years of racing that I get way more cheers, more attention from the crowd and definitely more media attention when racing, for example, in a bathing suit. The finish pictures look very nice, too, with the bathing suit and the likes on Facebook afterward show nice figures. All for marketing, right?
[female] No. I am way too stressed out with getting everything done pre-race–especially finding a hiding place to get a last minute bathroom break. Then once the race starts I am all business.
[male] I think I am self-conscious–but more so after the fact. I don’t wake up pre-race thinking how I will look on camera so much. But when I see pictures of myself from a race I definitely dissect the way I look, comparing my performance to the way my body looks in a certain shot.
[female] Yeah, about wearing the right sponsors, looking thin, looking pretty–like everyday life, really.
[female] The week of Ironman I do try to represent my sponsors as best as possible, plus we get lots of free (and cool) gear during race week from our sponsors, so it’s fun to show off the brands around town. I’m not super self-conscious, but I do try to be aware of things like spinach in my teeth or panty lines! Honestly, I just try to be myself.
[male] Sometimes I’m ashamed of how people walk around wearing their race kit the whole two weeks before the race. Yes, I know there are pockets on the backside, which are great for shopping. But I like to lead by good example and only wear my compression gear in my condo with the curtains closed.
[female] Yes, I certainly am! I’m afraid I’m vain enough to want to look well in a picture. Also sponsors like it better when you look good.
[female] Mostly yes. To feel good about my mirror image is a major point for me to race well.
[female] Of course–I’m conscious of this when it comes to any up close shots or cameras! I’m always wiping my face and mouth making sure there isn’t anything on there that shouldn’t be–food and drink and the rest.
[female] A little bit, but I’m more concerned about how my weight will affect my race. I didn’t enter a beauty contest, and I hope the spectators know that’s not what they are witnessing.
[male] No, I just try not to pee in front of too many people!
Are you concerned about things like muscle tone, muffin top, your hair, misfired snot-rockets, accidents in your shorts or the sheerness of your race kit?
[female] No. By the end of a race I am covered in drool, pee, sugar and snot. There is no time for vanity.
[female] No. The sheerness of a race kit often goes down well!
[female] Pre-race, yes. Early in the race, kind of. Near the end of the marathon, anything goes: pee in the pants, GU on the face and bloody noses are all fair game.
[female] Muffin top is the reason I won’t often wear a two-piece or anything showing my midriff. I think even if I had a stomach like Belinda Granger I would still hide it–though maybe not! I try not to snot on myself–it disgusts me when I see set snot on the buttocks of bike pants or jerseys. I carry a napkin when I ride or I do a fast hack so I don’t get myself.
I refuse to wear white on my nicks [shorts] because it makes you look wider and isn’t flattering to me.
[male] I make sure I wear a dark color that isn’t see through–definitely no white! My hair is cut so short that it’s never an issue. I try not to do any “accidents” in my shorts–touch wood that hasn’t happened yet. I don’t worry about snot-rockets, but maybe I should. When I finished Ironman Western Australia I was covered in dried Coke and snot and saliva–not so pretty!
[female] It is horrifying to think about an accident in the shorts and I have seen it happen many times. While I have been fortunate to make it to a porta-potty in time during this potential crisis, it really is part of the sport and the extreme measures our bodies go through on race day. I have heard massive gas being passed by racers out on the course and seen wads of poop like a diaper in people’s spandex and even diarrhea running down people’s legs. But truthfully I am completely numb to it. I don’t care and I don’t judge what happens to anyone on the course because it could happen to me one day. But my hair? That’s another story. It’s like a nasty, wet, gummy, salty, sticky nest that likely has gel, spit and potentially pee in it. It’s a sight for sore eyes. It would be a value-add to take even 30 seconds at the start of the run to pour water over my head and re-do my pony tail and barrettes, but my arms are usually too sore and lazy in the moment to make that happen!
[female] I love it when I see more muscle tone, when my six-pack arrives before race day and when I feel slim. I raced a national championship over the middle distance, but the two-piece I was wearing wasn’t very flattering. That picture was on the cover of our national triathlon magazine. Once I got it in the mail I was so embarrassed! I looked horrible–not like a toned athlete at all. My hat was way too big on my head and I wore the thick-making two-piece suit. Since that picture I’m even more aware of how I look and what suits me best.
[male] I don’t worry too much about muscle tone, etc. When I do my hardest training, my body usually gets in pretty good shape. I do weigh myself regularly, and what happens for me is that I reach a baseline weight that doesn’t change much. I try to get there several weeks before a race and then just hold it.
[female] I think the only thing on that list that I would be legitimately concerned about would be the sheerness of my race kit. This is, after all, a family event. I wouldn’t want to go all Miley Cyrus out there, making things inappropriate and causing Will-Smith-family-esque reactions!
Do you do anything to hide or enhance any body image issues that you’re self-conscious about?
[female] Nope. I am what I am! Although I have been known to stuff my top with sponges or gels mid-marathon.
[female] In college, we raced cross-country in bun-huggers and I would put on self-tanner before every race because I thought I looked better orange. But now I am too old to care.
[male] I am paranoid I have a flabby tummy. I wear a one-piece for a few reasons, but it helps keep me looking thin and fit!
[female] I’m the “strong” athlete. I think that means broad!
[female] My prerace prep always includes a haircut and hair dye. And I always have my eyebrows and eyelashes colored black because I feel it lifts up my face for the pictures. I wouldn’t wear a top that leaves my belly naked unless I need to feel a breeze on my stomach while running. I’m just not that confident about it and often feel like an elephant compared to the other girls.
[female] You’re obviously conscious of how you look at the beginning of the race because this is the society we live in, but those thoughts go out the door once the gun goes off.
[female] No, not really. I can’t hide my gastrocs–they are there for good!
[female] I always feel a bit too chubby. Don’t all of us? I don’t care about the performance–it’s all about looking good! That’s why I tell my clothes sponsor to make a race suit that hides the muffin top and makes me look slimmer! If you look at my T2 times they are always really slow because I have to put my hair up so it looks good under the cap and I also have to check if my mascara is still perfect. I always put it on before the race.
[female] I tried Spanx once, but the chaffing was just not worth it.
Do you worry about your weight in the last few weeks before a major race? If so, is that because of how it affects your performance or because of how you will look on course and on camera?
[male] I very much like to look lean and light and have flattering photos from a race. But ultimately the result is what matters. I watch my weight a little, but it is not worth watching it too much and being little and lean for looks but losing power or strength–or worse, getting sick or injured from being too fragile. It is professional and nice to look good and healthy, but the main goal is a solid performance on race day. Lighter and leaner is better for performance, but there is a line that you can cross and lose performance by dieting. It is all a balance and getting the result is priority number one in my mind.
[female] I think every triathlete, especially pros, watch their weight. I know my exact weight to race on my best, and it’s probably a little heavier than how I would like to see myself. But performance has a way higher priority for a big race than how I look.
[female] Yes, I always worry. In my case it’s an important point–my weight changes weekly, up and down like a rollercoaster. There is nothing more annoying then racing and not being in shape. It’s awful for my performance and bad luck for the man behind the camera, not to mention the poor spectators!
[female] No, but I never weigh myself except yearly at the doctor. I close my eyes and turn up my iPod on race morning during the weigh-in because I really don’t need to know.
[female] Most of the year, nope. But I do like to be as fit as possible for key events, like Ironman Hawaii, so I tend to cut back on a few luxuries (ahem: beer, dark chocolate, wine, ice cream). As a result I lean out a bit.
[male] I weigh myself fairly regularly (three to four times a week). I do this more to know if I am hydrated, have decent fat levels and have reached my historic optimum race weight. Of course I am conscious of my body image, but I really feel that for most of us, when we do our hardest blocks of work, the body gets in good shape and tends to look alright. In the professional ranks we sometimes give each other a hard time, but I truly believe at this stage I know best when my body is operating well, and what I need most, especially since I have had success and remember what it took and what I looked like when it happened. It’s okay to put a little weight on in the off season, and getting really light and lean is only sustainable for a little while for most people. I try to look at it in a positive light–I look for the parts of my body that I think look good, and I focus on those to give me the confidence that things are on track for my big performances.
[female] I worry about my weight, both because of my performance and because of the camera.
[female] Yes, because of speed only.
[female] Everyone does–men and women always worry about their weight. I remember Pete Jacobs saying he puts on 5-kg race week. I would freak out if I did that! But you usually put on about ½-kg because you have to. It’s about my performance–I want to feel light and fast and look the same. It’s a mental thing more than anything, but it feels good when you can see your veins sticking out.
[male] Unlike lots of athlete, I have to make sure I’m not getting too skinny. Naturally I’m thin so in the last couple of weeks I can get very small. I have to try to eat a lot and maybe even have a couple of beers (alcohol-free of course) to get my weight back up.
[female] I don’t worry about my weight in the last few weeks before a major race. If you have followed your plan and are confident in the work you did to get to that point, everything else should fall into place. Control what you can control and don’t worry about things out of your control. I find that if I lose too much weight anyways, my performance goes out the door. I tend to race a little better with junk in the trunk–which is there all year long, by the way! Keeping it simple and less complicated seems to work best for me personally.
Do you react in a particular way–smile, suck in your gut, try to look extra tough, etc.–when you see the race photographers?
[female] I learned my lesson with that. I once pulled in my belly in an Olympic distance race to look good for the photographer. I remember it very well. I was running 3:30-km pace and it was not a good thing to do. I was running in the lead and it messed up my breathing. I had huge problems straight after–I got side stitches and couldn’t get rid of them. I finished second because of it. Never ever am I going to keep my belly in again. I learned my lesson.
[female] I’m all business. I get really annoyed with the media and lead vehicle/bike out there. I have been known to yell at them, so I guess I am my nasty self!
[female] No, it’s the last thing on my mind.
[female] I like to smile or share a good laugh.
[male] I have occasionally changed my expression to be funny, but I usually either don’t notice photographers, or I try to hold whatever form I have in the moment so I might better understand what I really look like when I am going my hardest. This is especially true for the bike, as it’s easy to tell if something is looking aerodynamically unacceptable or uncomfortable. That said, I have been working on my Blue Steel impressions when I brush my teeth each night.
[female] Sucking in your gut is kind of hard while running or biking. You need all the air that you can get, and sucking in your tummy doesn’t really help with that. But I do try to smile. Mostly on the bike–not so much on the run unless I’ve lost my focus. At one race I was so focused on the run the whole marathon that I didn’t laugh at anyone and you don’t see me smiling in any pictures, but it was my best marathon ever. So too bad if I don’t have a pretty smile while running–I’m on a mission. I can just post one of the bike while I’m smiling and send that to my sponsors.
[male] A good part of the training is that you don’t have to do that. It’s not Hollywood and nearly everybody is at 5% body fat.
[female] That’s the last thing I’m thinking about. I try to stay as relaxed as possible. When you’re hurting there is nothing you can do about looking good and hiding the pain can be hard, too.
[male] I definitely try to look my best when I see the photographers. On the bike I get down in the aero position, or I try to run more smoothly than before. Whenever I see my fiancée taking photos I try to spin my race number around to the front. I always put on a bit of a performance in the finish shoot so we get good photos, but nothing too dramatic!
[female] I usually pose looking down while raising one eyebrow, a la The Rock.
[female] When the cameras are on I always have more energy. I smile, I suck in my belly, and look totally cool even though I’m suffering big time! That’s why the cameras love me–I always look so happy. It’s just because I’m such a good performer!
[female] I have often thought of putting my trusty lip gloss in my bike bento box, T2 transition bag or race belt pocket to try to spruce the lips up and look half way decent, but I’ve never followed through on it. You get numb and lazy about this type of stuff in the moment. If you don’t look at least a wee bit disheveled on the run of an Ironman, you are either from another glamorous planet or you probably haven’t been pushing yourself hard enough. And you’ll look out of place from the other athletes who are caked with blood, sweat, salt, pee, potentially poop and tears!