You might hear the term “runner’s face” thrown around in everyday conversation, but what do the experts say? According to board-certified dermatologist Cynthia Bailey, M.D., founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care, the science makes sense, as runners (namely, ultra-marathoners) generally have a lower percentage of overall body fat. “Much of your facial appearance is dependent on facial fat pads—collections of facial fat that create youthful facial structure,” she says. “With loss of facial fat, skin sags and age-related facial features, such as the marionette lines and the loss of rounded cheek volume, become more prominent.”
Everyone experiences gravitational wrinkles at some point (over time, your skin just sags!), but when you have less fat in your face to begin with, that process might happen a bit quicker. Board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., backs up the claim: “High-impact exercise takes a toll on the skin, because gravitational forces can be damaging to collagen and elastic fibers and contribute to sagging,” he tells mbg. “Moreover, as there is less fat in the face of runners, the faces tend to look more gaunt and older.”
Not to mention, many endurance athletes do their running outdoors, and all that sun exposure can contribute to aging skin, especially if they leave that vulnerable skin unprotected. Let’s not forget that up to 80% of the signs of skin aging—including thinning and loss of elasticity—are due to UV damage.
But let’s back up for just a moment: Exercise is also so good for your skin! “There’s data showing that exercise can actually strengthen your mitochondria, which are your skin’s powerhouses,” Zeichner notes. We never want to demonize any sort of movement, and we often say the best type of exercise is that one that you’ll do—period and end of story.
Plus, running is associated with a few skin-related benefits. “The regular training of endurance runners has been shown to reduce the presence of advanced elycation end products (AGEs) in skin by as much as 11% compared to untrained age matched individuals,” says Bailey. “Accumulation of AGEs in skin is associated with skin aging, loss of skin elasticity, and reduced skin biomechanical strength.”
So is runner’s face a real thing? Well, it is technically possible for your cheeks to hollow out from becoming so lean, but it’s usually only the case for ultra-marathoners or someone who might be exercising to the extreme. However, it shouldn’t be too much of a concern; and if running makes you feel your best (no matter how many miles you log), then that’s really all that matters.