The Scale: Your Best Friend or Worst Enemy?

Young woman checking her weight on a scale.

We use technology almost every minute of our day. We are constantly surrounded by machinery that gives us feedback on our heart rate, our pace, and our state of mind. Most of the time, technology helps make life easier. It gives us confidence that we are doing the right things and using our most precious resource, time, wisely.

But there is one form of feedback that can tear us apart if we let it. It can tear our confidence to shreds and guilt us into making bad and unhealthy decisions. It has the power to dictate our day, change our behavior and, if we are not careful, define who we believe we are. What one item can control us this much? The scale.

Young woman sitting on stairs checking her smartphone.

But the obesity rate is rising. Shouldn’t we worry about how much we weigh?
We are constantly informed that the worldwide obesity rate is climbing and being overweight is killing us. Studies have shown that if you are overweight, you are less likely to get a good job, people will treat you differently, and you will even earn less.

As runners, we are particularly susceptible to the power of the scale. The message from the fat-shaming media and the speed at which elite runners blow by us is clear: to be fast, you have to be thin.

It is no wonder that we have become addicted to the scale and staying within a set of numbers that we have deemed acceptable. Surely, this is not a bad thing? If we keep the weight off, we will be healthier, get a better job, and run faster.

What could possibly be wrong with that?

Cropped shot of a young sportsman running in the forest.

Don’t let the number on the scale dictate who you are as a person
Well, it has the ability to shatter your confidence and possibly send you on a downward spiral that can feel impossible to climb out of.

Here’s how:
It may start out innocently enough: your big race is in a few months, and you want to get down to race weight, so you start to cut out a few calories here and there, checking your progress a few times a week. You start to see results, and it makes you feel good. Your running starts to feel a little easier, and you are getting faster.

It is working!

Young woman drinking out of her water bottle.

Beware that your weight does not become an obsession
That reinforces it in your mind. But now, instead of just weighing a few times a week, you are now weighing in every day. You remove all your clothes when you do, because you want to get the most accurate measurement, of course!

Somewhere along the way, a shift happens: you notice that not only are you weighing yourself every day, but on the days you weigh a little more than the day before, you feel huge.

It doesn’t matter if you celebrated an anniversary with your husband the night before and had a beautiful evening you will remember for years to come. It doesn’t matter that you drank lots of water this morning as you were thirsty. All that matters is that the number went up, which means you must be gaining weight, and it is time to be more cautious with your eating.

Now you start to pay more attention to what you eat, and feel a sense of satisfaction whenever that number is down. Additionally, you are avoiding eating out as it’s too easy to lose control and eat too much.

Now you are even weighing yourself in the evenings, making sure that you did not overeat at dinner. The scale starts to dictate your day, the fear that you will not be at your racing weight on race day firmly in your mind.

You snap at loved ones if they suggest eating sooner than you deem necessary, and you start to skip meals to make up for the moments that you do overeat. After a long run in the summer, you step on the scale, excited to see the number way down, and it helps reinforce that behavior once again.

It can escalate quickly
Before you know it, your family has sat you down for an intervention. Who said a number on a scale should rule our lives?

After all, our weight can fluctuate 5-10lbs within any given day, depending on how much food we eat and liquid we drink. A giant soup might make you gain a few pounds of water weight, but eating 10 tablespoons of peanut butter won’t show.

We both know which has more calories there (the peanut butter).

You don’t have to be a certain size to be a runner
As an elite runner, I am surrounded by other elite runners who are chiseled to perfection. They are strong, skinny, and lean. I also fell for the thinking that thinner equals faster, and I started to weigh myself to make sure I was not overeating.

Everything I described above is something I went through a few years ago. Until one day, I realized how dangerously close I was coming to heading down a dark path where it was no longer about running fast, and instead about how skinny I could be.

Luckily, I had a breakthrough
Thankfully, I reached a breaking point where I realized it was more important for my body to be fueled correctly than to look a certain way. So I made my husband hide the scale.

For a week or so, I considered searching for it around the house, desperate for that feedback, but I noticed that my mood improved without it. I felt happier, and like a weight (no pun intended!) had been lifted off my shoulders. It was a relief.

Instead, I started to listen to what my body needed to fuel me through my training, and I stopped looking at myself in the mirror in such a critical way. The cruel voices were pushed aside by stronger ones that were happy with how strong I was feeling in training.

Ditching the scale: the best thing I could have ever done
After I ditched the scale, and ate by feel, I ran a 4 minute PR in the marathon with a finishing time of 2:37:35. Then, I represented Great Britain in the World Half Marathon Championships.

At that moment it didn’t matter how big or small I was. What mattered was performance, and I had the best chance of great performance by eating the foods that helped my body to repair and recover to handle the training.

Should you throw your scale away?
Am I saying that no one should ever own a scale? No. Some people are able to look at those numbers occasionally and just get on with their day no matter what it says.

But here is the problem: runners are usually perfectionists and Type A personalities who want to do everything they can to be the best they can be. If you notice that you get a little faster after losing some weight, surely losing more weight will make you even faster?

That is true to an extent, but it can be hard to know where that line is. After a while, your body will start to break down and put you at risk of injury, overtraining, and lifelong damage from the nutrients you are depriving your body of.

Sure, the scale may keep us accountable, but it is very difficult to have it there staring at you every day without the number becoming something you get addicted to looking at.

If you are one of those rare people who can differentiate the number with your opinion of yourself, then by all means keep your scale in your bathroom and continue as you are. But if you start to notice that you are showing some of the behaviors I mentioned above, might be time to put it away before it is too late.

In the same way, I think it’s healthy for runners to run without looking at their GPS watches for some workouts. I think it is healthy to avoid tying our self-worth to a number we have deemed acceptable.

Our family and friends will love us no matter what we weigh. And, if we are eating the right foods, there is no way we can gain enough to make a noticeable difference anyway. You have to ask yourself, what is more important: fueling your engine, or striving to reach an unattainable perfection?

I know which I would choose.



Tina Muir As a former elite runner, Tina knows what athletes need to focus on in their training. "I'm an expert at improving your running." View all posts by Tina Muir »