Take up a new sport and your body will likely take on a new shape.
May 1995
Joseph Hooper
Photographed by Mark Ellen Mark.

Take up a new sport and your body will likely take on a new shape. Joseph Hooper talks to in­line skaters, runners, cyclists, swimmers, and tennis players and finds that strong legs and steely shoulders are an athlete's reward.

Photographed by Mark Ellen Mark.

Every sport sculpts the athlete according to its particular aesthetic ‑sometimes without regard to conventional notions of female attractiveness. (Not every woman wants the thighs of an Olympic speed skater or the shoulders of an Olympic swimmer.) A woman may choose her sport not because she wants it to change her body but purely for the joy of it -because it offers an outlet for competitive juices or even just the rhythmic solace of laying down miles or laps. Still, when the endorphin high of a 40‑minute run wears off, or the adrenaline rush of a close tennis match, a woman is returned to herself, and to her mirror. Then she will want to like what she sees.

Legs to run for Middle-distance runner Meredith Rainey shows off her stride –as well as her shapely calf, quadriceps, and hamstring muscles.
Going the distance: Body‑molding Lycra briefs and a cropped top give sprinter Meredith Rainey a competitive edge. Shan briefs and top, about $112. Barneys New York. Air Zoom running shoes by Nike.


Of all sports, running is the most radical of sculptors. Sprinting lends a Michelangelo touch, stripping a woman of extra fat and giving her leg muscles such knotty dimension and strength, they could be said to be voluptuous. Distance runners look like they have been fashioned by Giacometti, pared to a sleek, sometimes emaciated, essence.

Meredith Rainey, one of America's best hopes in next year's Olympic 800 meters, is a middle‑distance runner with a classic sprinter's body. The big, ropy hamstring muscles that shape the backs of her thighs she developed as a schoolgirl sprinter. Ditto her well‑developed calves and quadriceps (front thighs). The sprinter's start works the hams, and the high‑lifting stride works the calves and the quads. "As a little girl, I used to wonder whether I would ever have 'normal' legs," Rainey says. "Now I'm proud of my body and where it's gotten me."

Impressive as Rainey's physique is, few recreational runners have access to the coaching necessary for interval speed work or the appetite for its special tortures. Mostly, people jog. Nothing could sound milder than jogging, yet the physiology of slow, long‑distance running has a transformative power that is the glory and the bane of the sport. With the possible exception of cross‑country skiing (which is really just running with narrow skis strapped on), distance running is the most efficient way to burn calories. The runner operates inside the "aerobic zone": Her heart and lungs work at between 65 and 80 percent of maximum capacity, causing her body to burn its fat stores for continuous energy. Also, during a run, blood flow is diverted from the digestive organs to the legs, an effect that helps to suppress appetite, even after the run is over.

Exactly where that fat drops off is determined by the genes. Most women who take up running find that their hips and their butts shrink -happy news usually‑ but also that their breasts get smaller, which can be a source of mixed emotion. "One of the first questions I get asked is 'Will my boobs go?' " says Kitty Consolo, a competitive road runner who teaches exercise physiology at Cuyahoga Community College in Parma, Ohio. "I answer, 'Yeah, but you'll have better firmness and tone, and you'll probably be at lower risk for breast cancer.'"

As a novice runner observes her new body taking shape, she may want to throw away the bathroom scale and pay attention only to the mirror. Her actual weight may not decrease much, if at all, because the fat loss will be offset by an increase in lean muscle mass, which is heavier than fat. The weight isn't lost so much as redistributed, and that means a smaller dress size.

"Running is a great way to watch your figure, if you don't get obsessive," says Kim Jones, America's second‑ranked marathoner. There's the catch. From its fat‑burning efficiency to its peerless endorphin "high," running invites obsession. But the call to emaciated perfection can be resisted. A strong, fit runner is an eloquent refutation of the sedentary life.

In the saddle Pro cyclist Eve Stephenson has developed buns and thighs of steel –and a lean upper body.

Pearl Izumi’s unitard –which features nylon and spandex for support, mesh inserts for breathability, and plenty of ultra-sensor fabric in the seat – helps keep cyclist Eve Stephenson up to speed. Pearl Izumi’s unitard, about $300.


If a cyclist can be regarded as an athletic sculpture, she's a small piece of work. The chiseled details are pretty well confined to the roughly one and a half feet of flesh from the knee to the top of the thigh. The cycling motion is as dumb and straightforward as a medieval machine, and it works only the upper leg. "The lower leg acts as a rigid lever as the upper leg provides the force that moves the pedals up and down," says Fort Collins, Colorado, cyclist and triathlon coach Joe Friel.

Cyclists don't burn as many calories per mile as runners, but by working their quads and hamstrings and glutei maximi (buttocks) against the resistance of gears, they do develop thighs and bottoms of quivering steel, and no stinting on size. Or at least the men do. How women's muscles respond to all that saddle time depends on their body chemistry, in particular their levels of the male sex hormone testosterone, friend to big muscles. Dean Golich, sports scientist with the U.S. women's cycling team, points out that women cyclists who train and race over distance have thighs that may look demure when compared with those of sprint-driven speed skaters (see Bonnie Blair), but they're still something to be reckoned with. Says Eve Stephenson, one of the nation's top female cyclists, "I'll be sitting next to a teammate on a plane and I'll think, Wow, those are big legs."

But there's also the rest of Stephenson's body to consider, and that might be described as a less drastic version of a distance runner's ‑lean, mean, and, at five feet eight and a half inches, 126 pounds, no excess baggage. "When I was a teenager," says Stephenson, now 25, "I had a bigger upper body, bigger breasts." Now she can't afford the drag, racing for days at a time, up and down hills, 45 to 80 miles a day. During the off‑season, she gets some of her old body back. "In the winter," she says, "everything relaxes. The hormones come back to normal and the curves come back. It's good to build up your reserves, let the body recover."

The amateur cyclist who gets serious about her sport often gets very serious. Heather Mee is a partner in a frantically busy Manhattan advertising firm. In season, she puts in 30 or 40 miles around Central Park during weekday evenings, and another 50 miles on the weekends. Mee is little ‑five feet four inches and under 100 pounds‑ but having added muscle mass in her thighs and butt, she's almost as solid as an elite cyclist. Linda Littell, a travel‑industry executive in Denver, was treated for thyroid cancer five years ago and took up cycling as a way of fighting back. In season, she trains 200 miles a week and says her once‑skinny frame looks "curvier." "My legs don't look like sticks anymore," she says.

Tower of strength Olympian Janet Evans has the classic V-shaped swimmer’s body.

Olympic gold-medal swimmer Janet Evans is ready to take the splunge in Speedo’s high-performance nylon tank, with a racing back that allows greater arm and shoulder movement.


Swimmers represent human evolution in reverse. They've gone back to the water and the water has shaped them in its own peculiarly sensual way. Swimmers look like dolphins with big shoulders. Their muscles are smooth, protected by a layer of fat under the skin that keeps them buoyant and insulates them from the water's chill. Janet Evans, a gold‑ and silver‑medal winner at the 1992 Barcelona Games, is a fine example of the breed. She looks to be all shoulders ‑deltoid and trapezius muscles‑ where most of the stroke power is generated. "Most swimmers do have that V shape," Evans says. "If I wear a jacket, people will say to me, 'Nice shoulder pads.'"

Evans is not crazy about her arms and her shoulders from a cosmetic point of view ("I can't wear a tank top or I would look like a weight lifter"), but it's a healthy, athletic look that has plenty of admirers. Some might be tempted to take up recreational swimming to achieve it. They would be deluding themselves. Evans puts in six hours a day of mostly in‑the‑pool work to maintain her Olympic figure. Women who clock half an hour of lap‑swimming a day, Evans says, "don't have swimmers' bodies. They look like normal fit people."

There is a fair amount of contention over the question of how good swimming is for losing weight. Certainly, the general public has had a hard time equating swimming with weight loss, confronted as it has been with the massive East German women who dominated the sport in the seventies, and the Chinese swimmers who recently were banned for using anabolic steroids.

Even with steroids out of the picture, swimming isn't particularly slimming. Competitive swimmers do a lot of high‑speed interval work. This is anaerobic ("without oxygen") training, which means the body cannot convert fat stores into energy fast enough to meet the huge demand. Instead it uses glycogen, the body's sugar fuel source stored in the muscles and the liver. Once spent, the glycogen stores must quickly be replenished ‑by eating‑ to stave off bodily collapse. "Swimmers tend to strap on the feedbag after a workout," says swimming coach Terry Laughlin. These physiological facts of life explain why Janet Evans spends hours and hours in the pool burning who knows how many calories, yet her coach Mark Schubert has her and most of his USC women's swim team on a running program to keep their weight down.

Cold water probably plays some role in the swimmer's appetite. According to one theory, the elite swimmer spends so much time in water that is roughly fifteen degrees colder than her body, her brain sends out the message to load up on calories in order to maintain fat insulation.

If swimmers are unlikely to achieve the gaunt grandeur of runners, they can still achieve all over muscle tone. There's no shame in a fit body with strong but not bulging muscles. Poolside at New York's West Side YMCA, Jo Walker, age 36, explains that as a graduate student in architecture for the past three years, "I was the sedentary queen of the Western world." For the past six months, she's been swimming five evenings a week at the Y, a half hour a shot, which by Janet Evans standards would not qualify as an extended stretching exercise. Says Walker, "I feel more supple. My body moves like it's one piece." It must be that reverse evolution thing. She's taking to the water again.


Toned on wheels In-line skater Jill Schulz has thighs any woman would want.

For in‑line skaters, like Team Rollerblade member Jill Schulz, the idea is to find gear that combines flash with function. The essentials include a pearlized white tank and briefs that showcase a well‑toned body. Liza Bruce tank and briefs, about $140. Canyon Beach Wear, Los Angeles.

In‑line skating is brand‑new (die first Rollerblade rolled off the line in 1980), so it doesn't have any great competitive tradition to give it a dignify­ing aura. It's just a fun sport for self‑described fun people that happens to lend itself to sym­metrical muscular toning and development. In­-line skating can be an aerobics class on wheels.

Jill Schulz is a member of Team Rollerblade, an L.A.‑based group of freestyle exhibition skaters. A former ice‑skater who first took up blading as a neat way to get to the beach, Schulz was one of those unusually fit women who gave a public‑relations boost to the sport in its early eighties infancy. "At the time, I was taking three aerobics classes a day," Schulz recalls, "but I wasn't getting lean. It wasn't until I started inline skating for two or three hours at a time that the weight started to come off"

In‑line skating is a sport a personal trainer could love. Nicky Evans, who is a co‑owner of ProActive Fitness in L.A. and has a master's in exercise physiology, finds that her clients are skating longer hours and burning more calories than they realize because they enjoy it, which must make skating virtually unique in the trainer's arsenal. "In‑line skating feels weightless compared to running," Evans says. Easy on the joints, blading is regarded as a low‑impact sport ‑unless, of course, the blader falls. Then it's very high‑impact. In the few short years of the sport's existence, accidents have been numerous. Schulz cautions that proper training is crucial, as are helmets, wrist guards, and knee and elbow pads.

In‑line skating works a wider range of lower‑body muscles than running does, enlisting the inner and outer thighs and the glutes, as well as the calves, the hamstrings, and the quads. "It's very good for the thighs and butt, which are problem areas for many women," Evans says. By dropping into a lower stance (knees over the toes), skaters get an intense, thigh‑quivering workout. Swivel maneuvers, in which the skater moves her feet apart and then back together, are great inner‑thigh toners, Schulz says.

Whatever shaping skaters do, they're not likely to overdevelop (hypertrophy) their leg muscles. Although speed skaters and hockey players were among the first to use in‑line skates in their training, recreational skaters don't overload their muscles with explosive starts and all-out sprints. Their thighs will never brook comparison with Bonnie Blair's or Mark Messier's.

For Jane Veronis, 32, a recreational athlete in magazine advertising sales, blading has been a godsend. She didn't like the bulky muscles cycling gave her. Now she's muscular symmetry on wheels, and she feels distinctly luckier than the other weekend athletes sharing her Central Park blading space, the pumped‑up cyclists and the poor runners. "The runners look like all the blood has been drained out of them," she says.


Consider a selective handful of the top women tennis players, not as players per se but, to be blunt as physical specimens. Look at established stars like Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini or newly triumphant Mary Pierce, winner of this year's Australian Open, or Latin doubles diva Gigi Fernandez. These women represent a strapping feminine ideal found in the pages of Marvel comic books, those lovingly drawn heroines with their bulging muscles and accentuated hips and breasts. "Most of our top players are pretty voluptuous," Fernandez says.

What does this inspirational example mean for the serious recreational player? Jack Groppel, sports‑science committee chairman for the United States Tennis Association, advances the idea that the stop‑and‑start nature of tennis may be its secret strength. "We're doing research now that suggests that there are tremendous benefits to oscillating in and out of the aerobic zone," he says. "It's like doing interval training in running and cycling. Maybe we have been selling tennis short as a way to build strength and endurance."

Maybe, but chasing down balls and whacking them with a racquet doesn't subject the leg and arm muscles to enough stress to stimulate truly obvious muscle growth in most women. At the end of the day the recreational player is going to have the same basic shape she started with. However, if she doesn't eat more to make up for the calories burned on the court, she'll lose some body fat and give old muscles a new, more "defined" look.

Groppel points to the calves and the quadriceps muscles around the knee as areas where the serious recreational player will develop strength and perhaps a little extra mass. Tennis players go up on their toes to hit serves and volleys. "The calf muscle contracts," Groppel says, "the same way a ballet dancer's would when she goes on pointe." In the good doctor's book, the tennis player has the calves of a dancer and the powerful thighs of a sprinter. All that accelerating and decelerating on the court "gives the quads a rounding effect, a little bulk," Groppel says.

Muscles can be explained. The statuesque physiques of many of today's top women players are more curious. Elite women players have a body‑fat percentage in the 12 to 15 percent range, which is higher than that of elite women runners and cyclists but comparable to that of female athletes in other sports. (The body‑fat percentage of the average American woman is 22 to 26 percent.) Considering that the female breast is mostly fat tissue, it isn't surprising that low‑fat female athletes tend to be small‑ or flat chested. In tennis, aside from a preponderance of tall players, the range of body types is startling. For every Martina Navratilova, with her blockish, hard‑muscled physique, there is a Mary Pierce, lissome, curvy, who has no difficulty throttling an opponent with a 100‑mile‑per‑hour serve. The mysteries of the flesh.