What is “runner’s face” and how do you avoid it?

April 26, 2024

Running is one of the best types of exercise: Studies say it can improve your cardiovascular health, boost your mood, and even reduce the risk of arthritis and memory issues. But if you’ve spent time online recently, you may have heard it can also cause characteristic skin changes, often described as “runner’s face,” reports Best Life.

There is no official definition for runner’s face, but medical professionals recognize the phenomenon.

“In general, it refers to the skeletal appearance that runners often get in the face area,” says Dennis Schimpf, MD, a plastic surgeon based in Charleston, South Carolina. “There’s no indication or research that running actually causes aging to happen faster—but it clearly does change the way a person appears.”

In addition to sometimes causing an overall gaunt appearance, this kind of exercise also cn impact the skin.

“The term generally describes the appearance of discolored, wrinkled skin of the face which can look leathery, tired, or older than the individual’s true age,” says Samuel J. Lin, MD, FACS, an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and plastic surgeon in Boston.

Most people first heard the term on TikTok. In February 2023, Gerald Imber, MD, of New York City,  a plastic surgeon and anti-aging expert, posted a video about the concept, saying certain exercises can accelerate weight loss and wrinkles—and running long distances just so happens to be one of them.

“Have you ever seen a long-distance long-time runner that didn’t have a great old face,” he asks. “That’s what happens: In addition to the gaunt old face, your knees go, your back goes, and it’s kind of dumb.”

He adds that it’s “perfectly fine” to run a little bit every day or a few miles a few times a week.

Overall, the experts say, developing runner’s face is likely associated with a few different things—among them, the following:

  • Low body fat: Studies show that distance runners tend to have lower body fat than inactive people, especially those ages 35 and older. That’s good for some things and less so for others. “Subcutaneous fat provides volume and support to the skin, smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles and providing a fuller, refreshing, and younger look,” says Elie Levine, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon in New York City. “As we age, this volume naturally decreases, so if you have low body fat to start, your volume is already diminished, and your skin will appear aged.”
  • Unsupported skin; Low body fat in the face can also lead to unsupported skin. Think, for example, about the facial fat on the cheeks and the fat pads surrounding the eyes. If those disappear, then the skin loses support, explains Leo Lapuerta, MD, a plastic surgeon in Houston. That can cause a sagging effect. You might also look somewhat sallow. “The loss of fat pads around the eye area leaves the eyes looking tired and hollowed out, and the look of tired eyes only augments the gaunt look of the face,” says Lapuerta.
  • Sun damage: Many runners spend hours outside, which can evolve into chronic sun exposure. “The sun’s effect on the skin is known as photoaging and has been demonstrated to cause increased wrinkles, poor skin texture, and discoloration,” says Lin. “Because runners tend to spend more time exposed to the sun and potentially without sun protection, the UV damage from the sun can cause signs of photoaging over time, which collectively can lead to what is called runner’s face.” Lin adds that research has also found that sweating can intensify the damage ultraviolet light exposure has on the skin.
  • Free radicals: It’s not just the sun that takes a toll on the skin when running. “Your skin is also exposed to free radicals and other environmental elements; thereby, becoming vulnerable to oxidative damage, which can cause the skin to look more gaunt, saggy, wrinkly, and dull,” says Levine.

So, consider yourself warned: Follow the advice above in order to “face your future” more youthfully.

Research contact: @bestlife