So when a crazy aunt I saw at a family party when I was a freshman in high school told me that running was bulking up my legs, she may as well have punched me. I was self-conscious about everything then, and bigger thighs were definitely not what I was going for. I was always a sporty kid who loved to run. I played summer soccer, looked forward to the timed “mile run” in gym class, and had my go-to neighborhood running loop throughout my teens .
Luckily, I got over the threat of bulking up and went on to compete in countless running road races and triathlons. I even ran the New York City marathon and watched my leg muscles get leaner during my training . But like a lot of women, I spent some serious time turning my back on a sport I loved so much, thanks to an unfounded myth I took as truth.
It happens to the best of us. In fact, there are a whole slew of running fears that can keep women from hitting the pavement, says Joe Holder, Nike+ Run Club coach and trainer at S10 in New York City. Here’s what he hears most often—and what you need to know to put your mind at rest and lace up those running shoes again.
Truth: Okay, so this is not entirely unfounded, and if you’re running without wearing the right sports bra, your girls are going to suffer over the long haul. Joanna Scurr, Ph.D., a professor of biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth, says a woman’s breasts move about 33 percent in each direction (in and out, up and down, and side to side) when walking; pick up the pace to a jog or run, and you get 51 percent movement up and down, 22 percent side to side, and 27 percent in and out. All that movement can irreversibly stretch ligaments, leading to sagging.
The fix: Invest in the right gear. Just like you need to wear the right socks and shoes, a supportive sports bra is crucial, says Holder. “It’s not the running that makes breasts sag but improper or ill-fitting active wear,” he says.
Truth: Women with larger breasts can avoid pain while running if they take a detailed look at their form, says Holder. First up, check your shoulders: Do you tend to compensate for the extra weight you’re carrying on your front side by hunching your shoulders forward a little? Then, think about your posture in general. “A lot of times, women with larger breasts have postural distortions that cause their back to be weaker than it could be, which will cause pain when you run,” says Holder.
The fix: Focus on strength-training exercises that work your rhomboids (upper back) and mid back, and when you’re running, try to keep your shoulders relaxed. “If you improve your posture and your running form, you’ll find running a lot more comfortable,” he says.
Truth: So it turns out my too-vocal aunt wasn’t totally off-base when it came to her comment about running having the potential to make my thighs bigger. When certain muscles are over-stimulated, you will see growth in those muscles—and maybe even more than you’d like, says Holder. “If your quads are dominating when you’re running and you’re not working your glutes or hamstrings as much as you should, those quads will carry more of the load, which means there’s potential for them to get bigger,” says Holder.
The fix: Find your weak points—and strengthen those spots. “It’ll help you activate those areas that may not be as awake when you run so you can work all of your running muscles equally and avoid over-working one area,” says Holder.
Truth: Just like any skill, running doesn’t come naturally to everyone, which means you may feel like your form isn’t great right from the start. That’s okay, says Holder. “Also, it’s important to keep in mind that every runner looks different,” says Holder. “You could pull up YouTube videos of the most accomplished, elite runners who don’t look so graceful when they run.”
The fix: Practice the basics—and give yourself some time to get into a groove. Running definitely takes coordination, says Holder, and the good news about this is that the more you practice, the more coordinated you’ll look and feel. “If you stay relaxed about it, have fun, and keep practicing, your body will start to move more fluidly,” he says.
Truth: The potential for this to happen is definitely there, says Holder, but the good news is there are a few very good ways to troubleshoot this problem if it happens to you.
The fix: Figure out if it’s a form issue that’s causing your chafing, says Holder. “Are your knees buckling in? Are your legs coming across the midline of your body, causing your thighs to rub together? If you think your form may be to blame, it’s time to make some tweaks,” he says. Ask a running coach, trainer, or even a friend who’s an accomplished runner for some pointers. If it’s not your form, it’s time to look for an anti-chafing product. “I personally use a body butter or petroleum stick that prevents chafing,” says Holder. “Even regular baby powder can help, too.”