Ultra-Runner Mirna Valerio Shares What Being an Athlete Has Taught Her About Body Image
Mirna Valerio is busy and booked. As an author, public speaker, ultra-runner and all-around outdoors enthusiast, she gets to travel the country and share her message of mind and body positivity.
When Valerio started running in marathons, ultramarathons and trail running circles, she noticed a lack of diversity in the community. This inspired her, in 2012, to start her blog Fat Girl Running, where she could advocate for people of all body types, races, genders and abilities to enjoy the running world. She lives in Vermont, where she gets to enjoy the great outdoors year-round. In 2017, Valerio published her memoir A Beautiful Work in Progress, and she works with brands like Lululemon and L.L. Bean to make athletic spaces more accessible.
As an athlete, Mirna knows that fueling her body is a top priority, but she also knows that she can nourish it in a fun and flavorful way. Mirna spoke with EatingWell about the role food and cooking plays in her life, the best ways she stays hydrated and how she thinks New Year's resolutions could be better.
EatingWell: What foods do you eat that make you feel just good?
Valerio: Wine! (Laughs). I love to make pasta dishes. Because I move around so much, I need the fuel, and I want my fuel to taste really good. So [that's why] I make a lot of pasta dishes. I also eat a lot of rice … so pasta and rice.
You know, my family, even though they're New Yorkers, our heritage is from the South; so we eat a lot of Southern foods. My mother makes a lot of rice and bean dishes … so, I love rice and beans.
I am a sucker for steak. I struggled with anemia, so steak does the job for me. I love salad, and I have a lot of specialty balsamic vinegars in Vermont, [where] there are a lot of specialty [food] stores. I will make a really cool salad and have some peach balsamic, strawberry balsamic or Persian lime balsamic or something like that.
Related: 12 Best Food Sources of Iron
EatingWell: What activities do you do that make you feel good? Other than running, of course.
Valerio: I love getting on my bike! And actually this is a change from two years ago when I started riding because I was injured.
Skiing is fairly new to me. [I started] because I was injured and had to do all these other sports. So, in 2020 I learned how to ski, and I will never go back. Every single day that I go out skiing, is never a bad day. Even when I got injured, I had fun that day. I love winter and this is why I live in Vermont. I love cold and snow, so the more I can get outside in the winter [the better], whether it's running, it's hiking with my microspikes on, or even cross-country skiing. That's fun too! But I really like downhill skiing.
I do yoga and have a couple of people that I work with for yoga. Then I do mobility work. I have a mobility trainer, and I love working with him because he teaches me things that allow my body to move even more freely and more economically. Movement in general, outside, is what I prefer to do. That just keeps me happy and keeps the body working the way it should work.
EatingWell: What food can you not live without?
Valerio: My mom's collard greens. Here's the story: When I was 11 or 12, my mom left a pot of greens on the stove. She said, "Mirna, make sure they're not burned," because you have [to cook] them for a really long time. So, she went out to the store, and I kept checking them over the three hours and then somehow the pot [of greens] was gone!
They're so good, and they're so good for you. The way [my mom] makes them takes two or three days. I can't tell you the whole recipe, or I'd have to kill you … It's one thing that I cannot live without.
Related: Healthy Collard Greens Recipes
EatingWell: Are there any particular ways you like to hydrate as an athlete?
Valerio: Yeah, I use electrolytes from one company, Skratch, because they're really tuned into how much sodium [they add to their products].
If I'm going on a really long run, I'll have a flask of just plain water. Then in my pack, I'll have the water mixed with the electrolytes, so that I don't catch cramps afterward—even though I [sometimes] still do. And so I just remain hydrated by taking little sips along the run.
EatingWell: What has being an athlete taught you about food and how it fuels you?
Valerio: I will say that I've always appreciated food. I love food; food is love, food is community, food is being with your family. My family has a very strong tradition of everybody having to know how to cook. Everyone brings something to the table, and I love it. As much as food is fuel, food is also nurturing, right? It's very nurturing, especially when it's connected to a particular experience.
I know that food is fuel and I need it. [For example], if I don't eat enough dinner the night before [a run], I'm going to wake up with a headache—I know that about my body. Or if I don't eat enough while I'm doing a long run, it's going to impact my performance. I'm a slow runner, but it's gonna make me even slower [laughs], and I won't recover as well. If I don't eat enough after a run, my soreness will last longer and my muscles won't repair themselves as quickly as they would have if I had eaten enough.
I will say all of this sugar-free electrolyte stuff is bullshit. Because if you lose calories when you run, those are calories that you need to keep you going. So that's my little rant!
EatingWell: What has being an athlete taught you about body image?
Valerio: Do we have a couple of hours?! I mean, I'm at this whole Lululemon thing with a bunch of very thin athletes, and there are two of us that are plus-size athletes. It's cool to see the interplay of people who are just about athletics and who are running as a tool to happiness, joy or health.
It's cool to see that they don't care, and I don't care either. I do sometimes have thoughts about my body shape or my body size, but mostly what running has taught me since I started running as a high school student in 1989, is that my body is so capable of so many things and it's such an incredible machine.
[My body] heals itself—that's really cool. And that can take me really far. And with my own feet, I can do all these really, really cool things. That is the overarching message about my body that I get from running and doing all of the athletic activities that I do. My body is great but, you know, I don't love it all the time. I don't because nobody loves anything all the time. Sometimes I don't love my husband all the time!
Sometimes it's frustrating because it [my body] doesn't do the things that I want it to do. Sometimes it doesn't look the way I want it to look. But I know better; I know that without this body, I wouldn't be able to do the things that I do now. I think it's a really, really incredible machine and I think, for the most part, I have a very positive body image and a very realistic body image. Again, sometimes I do have negative body image days, and those are usually when I'm not moving.
EatingWell: What do you wish you could tell your younger self about body image?
MV: I had a really great body image when I was younger because I didn't have a whole lot of messaging. That [negative messaging] wasn't in my family. Like, "Oh, well, you don't need that," or "You can't do this because you're fat." That was never a thing.
When I went to high school, I tried out for sports but I didn't know what I was doing! I was, you know, chubby or whatever. But I had such a positive experience on that first day of high school playing field hockey, even though it was painful, [because] I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I was looking at these other girls, and they all knew what they were doing, they were all skinny and went to field hockey camp and I went to a camp in Brooklyn!
I never got that message that I was too "big" to do anything. I was very, very fortunate that I didn't have that constant messaging around me when I was young.
EatingWell: How do you feel about New Year's resolutions? Are you a fan or not?
MV: You know, I'm a fan of setting goals,whether they're smart goals or intentions. I think we're all past the "resolution" phase, because it has become very meaningless. People set resolutions that are really not achievable for them—they're unattainable. Think about some big goals that you might have for yourself, and give yourself some space, grace and time to do them. That's where we should be headed.
I like to have goals, that's my thing! I do think it's an amazing opportunity to start anew or to restart something. There's a lot of energy around that, and I think we should utilize it, but also be very, very realistic and honest with ourselves.
EatingWell: What does "healthy" mean to you?
Valerio: Oh my goodness, that term has been so commodified! I think the concept of health is a very personal one. I think that you have to look at where you are in your life and how you are feeling, not just physically but mentally and emotionally and spiritually—if that's a thing for you.
Look at how you're feeling and what's working and what's not working for you personally and not necessarily in the context of everyone else's lives. So health is a very personal thing.
But if you can look at your life and be like, "I feel really good. Not just physically but mentally and emotionally. I have a great friend group. I do things that fill my soul. I get out and move intentionally for 45 minutes, four times a week. And that's what works for me," I think that's healthy. I can't put it into a really succinct quote or soundbite, but I think it encompasses a lot of different things that are personally relevant to whoever's looking at their own health.