Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Guest Post - In Defense Of The Skinny Finn

Today's guest post is by Tom Dansie, a person who can run 26.2 miles at a pace faster than I can run 1 mile.

There is a side by side comparison image of a skinny, balding, goofy looking white Finnish distance runner next to a young, muscular, attractive, black British sprinter currently going viral on Facebook, the ultimate source for information on everything from tea party politics to the best kind of exercise regimen. Usually the image is posted by advocates of high intensity exercise programs and has a caption like, "Which is healthier?"

The obvious intent of the comparison is to extol the virtues of short duration, high intensity exercise (P90X / Crossfit / weight lifting - represented by the sprinter image) over longer duration and lower intensity exercise (cardio training - represented by the distance runner image), with the sprinter clearly being the obvious preferred choice. Who can argue that Crossfit (or P90X, etc.) is not the greatest way to exercise when you get results looking like the ripped sprinter?

Well, I am here to speak up for the goofy Finn. Let me be the first to say, "I want to be him!" Let me explain why.

First of all, I can't be certain but it looks like the sprinter in the image is British sprinting sensation Dwain Chambers. The same Dwain Chambers who tested positive for steroid use in 2003, resulting in a lifetime ban from Olympic competition, erasure of his 2002 Olympic gold medal, and forfeiture of all his earnings from his athletics career. If it takes steroids to look like him I think I will pass.

I know what you are going to say next, "Well, you can't judge all sprinters based on one isolated instance of drug use." To which I say, "Exactly. Just like you can't compare the relative health benefits of high intensity versus low intensity exercise by looking at two isolated photographs."

By placing these images next to each it tricks the viewer into thinking these are the only two possible outcomes of high intensity and low intensity exercise. If I do cardio training I am going to look anorexic, have a receding hairline, and look like a dork. But if I do Crossfit I am going to be super ripped, have a cool flat top, and look like a stud.

Of course, this is not the case. There is a huge variety of body shapes and levels of fitness among both sprinters and distance runners. There are a thousand other images of sprinters and distance runners that could be placed side by side to make the choice between the two much less dramatic. For example:

These are both world class athletes: one a sprinter, the other a marathoner. Which would you want to be? A little harder choice, isn't it? I would suspect most people would choose the image on the left, I know I would.

The image on the left is of Meb Keflezighi, one of America's top marathoners, silver medalist at the 2004 Olympic marathon and winner of the 2009 New York City Marathon. The image on the right is of Christophe Lemaitre, a rising French sprinting star who won the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay at the 2010 European Championships.

What can we learn from these two photo comparison exercises? Answer: If you want to look like a serious athlete and not a dork, you had better be black.

Because we don’t get to choose our skin color, what else can we learn from these two photo comparison exercises? Answer: Two cherry picked images can never completely illustrate the benefits of one exercise regimen over another.

Further, some body types respond better to one type of exercise program than do others. Just because you adopt a Crossfit / P90X / sprinter's workout you will not automatically end up looking like Dwain Chambers. And (sadly for me) if you adopt a marathoner’s training program you are not guaranteed to look like Meb Keflezighi. Some of us (again, sadly for me) are always destined to look like the goofy Finn.

But here’s the good part. I am happy being a goofy distance runner. I like the health benefits of low intensity, long duration exercise. I know I will never have bulging biceps by following the exercise program I have chosen, but I don’t care. If concentrating on cardiovascular exercise means I am destined to be skinny and goofy looking I am content with that. At least I don’t have a receding hairline (as far as you know).

Of course, some people are different. They are more suited to high intensity exercise. They like throwing old tires around and doing wall push-ups. And they put a higher priority on muscle tone and strength. I think that is great for them. I am not suggesting that Crossfit / P90X / etc. are not great exercise programs. I believe they are.

What I am suggesting is everybody gets to choose which type of exercise suits them best. The most important thing is to stay active and try to improve your overall health through some type of exercise program, and to be consistent in whatever program you choose.

I just have three words of caution for those who choose a Crossfit / P90X / sprinter’s workout:

1) Don’t try to convince me that your workout program is better than mine with pictures of dorky looking distances runners (we already know we are dorks).
2) Don’t think you are going to look like Dwain Chambers without doping.
3) It’s just not worth it to dope (unless you are a national sports icon, prominent Nike sponsored athlete, and founder of a high profile cancer advocacy group – in which case I guess it is worth it).


  1. I really enjoyed this post! So true that you can't cherry pick images to show what a practicing a certain sport will make you look like. I'm still waiting on Meb's abs....

  2. Oh how true number three is and that is why people will continue to do. Loved the post! thought it brought up great points.

  3. Yay for skinny Finns and Boo for doping and image cherry picking.

    1. If you would've known what the original was truly about then you wouldn't have been so quick to judge yourself! It was not posted to take a hit on skinny Finns, it was posted to show that there are many different body types and to embrace what body type you were blessed with. Such a harsh article for knowing such little facts about why it was posted in the first place. Maybe next time find out what and why the picture was posted before going to the next extreme. Oh how we do this too often in life!

  4. I love this! I'm a runner and a (relatively new) CrossFitter.

    I have a 'friend' on facebook who used to chastise me about my marathon training, how I was wrecking my body, and that I needed to start lifting weights as part of my healthy lifestyle. And he posted the exact pic of the skinny Finn & black British sprinter guy.

    After another friends urging, I looked into CrossFit. And I love it. Love it just as much as I love to run. You'd think my 'friend' that urged me to start lifting weights would be ecstatic. Nope. Now CrossFit is whack, teaches improper technique, a far-cry from being useful, blah blah blah. It drives me a little batty, trying to figure out how I can win. (Not that it's a competition, or that I have to 'win' anything with this 'friend'. But it's frustrating when he consistently bashes the 2 things that I love to do (run & crossfit).

    I find it somewhat ironic that the original image of the sprinter is of an athlete who was caught using steroids and was stripped of his Olympic medal.

    and just for reference, I'd like to have a body somewhere in between the sprinter and skinny Finn. ;)

  5. I'm so sorry I waited to read this until now. It's so spot-on. Different strokes...I like my long runs (even though I'll never look like the female version of Meb either).

  6. Aging is strongly linked to muscle loss. It would behoove any human to implement some form of resistance training to prevent age related muscle loss and reinforce bones (wolf's law). This isn't to cast judgement upon those who do aerobic exercise as there are many health benefits as well. Only to say that a well rounded exercise routine will always be superior in terms of health and longevity.