The Level Up
How Kelly Roberts Is Advocating For All Body Sizes In Running
“The running world is so monolithic in terms of body size, race, and gender. The best work we can do is internal.”
In “The Level Up,” changemakers in the fitness and wellness industries tell us how they’re making an impact in their communities, from pushing for inclusivity to promoting body acceptance and so much more. Here, running coach and influencer Kelly Roberts discusses why running shouldn’t be about body size, mileage, or pace.
Kelly Roberts never thought she’d be a runner. In fact, she only hit the pavement out of desperation. After losing her brother in 2009, she turned to college theater “as a safe space to process what was happening to me and my family,” says Roberts. But after she graduated in 2012, she no longer had that respite.
The now 33-year-old says she needed a way to deal with her grief and body image issues. So she took off running… and barely made it down the street. Even so, Roberts remembers feeling better when she got home. “I decided to start running because it gave me something to be proud of. I was like, ‘If I can run a marathon, there’s nothing I can’t do.’”
From there, her career in running took off. Roberts ran her first half-marathon in January 2013, then finished her first full marathon that June. Newfound conviction emboldened her to move in September of that year from San Diego to New York City, where she soon went viral for taking selfies with hot men running behind her throughout the New York City Half Marathon. Despite these accolades, Roberts wasn’t into the sport for the races. “Running has allowed me to meet so many people that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she says. “It’s like a vacation — on a run, you get to see things you’d never see in a car or on a bike.”
In 2014, Roberts started a blog about her approach to running — one that didn’t revolve around weight loss, mile times, or long distances. Soon thereafter, she started the #SportsBraSquad, a body-positive movement dedicated to celebrating the strength of women of all sizes. All this culminated in 2015 when Roberts founded the Badass Lady Gang (BALG), a free online and in-person community with members from all over the globe. “I realized there was this huge hole in the market for slow runners and people who didn’t want to constantly train for races,” she says. Roberts is the organization’s head coach; she helps people find the intersection of, as she says, “joyful movement and chasing big goals.”
“[BALG] is so much more than running. I wanted to provide a place where people can genuinely make friends,” says Roberts. And that she did — BALG offers a safe space for tens of thousands of women to connect over running and beyond via online forums, virtual trainings, and in-person meetups in cities across the country.
Today, she’s a Road Runners Club of America certified coach who has worked with thousands of runners on everything from starting a running routine to qualifying for the Boston Marathon. She also encourages, counsels, and entertains countless more online, including her 66,000 Instagram followers.
Here, Roberts tells Bustle how she’s making space for everyone in a sport that’s stereotypically dominated by small bodies and big distances.
When you first started running, what did the sport look like?
So many people get into running as a way to lose weight or punish themselves. And the running industry is always centered around fast, white, skinny men. It’s been super non-inclusive to people of color and bigger bodies. It still is.
I hated all the advice and guidance in the media about running because it was so archaic. It was all tailored to people who wanted to run fast, who were already very good at running, and who wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon or run a sub-three-hour marathon.
Now, it’s getting better thanks to so many loud voices who are working hard to make the sport more inclusive. But the running world is still not a great place. I’m not a fan of it, which is why I’ve built a house next door — we’re throwing our own party now.
Tell me about this party. What’s your approach to coaching?
A lot of people enter running with the goal of either losing weight or running a certain amount of miles in a certain amount of time. But when you have these unattainable goals — like a goal weight, size, or a one-and-done race — as your vision of success, you’re in for a terrible time.
As a coach, my goal is to get people to define what success and failure look like for them, and help them see how limiting it is when running is extrinsically versus intrinsically motivated. Don’t rob yourself of everything that movement can do, like the fun of taking a dance break during your run.
What is your advice to people who are trying to separate running from weight loss and diet culture?
There's this author named Sonya Renee Taylor who wrote a remarkable book called The Body Is Not an Apology, and in it, she uses the phrase “body image resilience.” Hearing this phrase was a shattering moment for me: It helped me realize that I am never going to escape diet culture.
Instead, body image resilience means understanding that you’re going to have challenging days with your body — it’s inevitable. But it’s about putting curiosity goggles on and asking yourself “What is happening to make me feel this way?” Not “I am this way.” Instead of thinking of yourself as the problem, you realize everything else is the problem.
What’s your No. 1 piece of advice as a running coach?
Know that you genuinely can do anything, but ask yourself “What do I want to do?” Because let’s be real — most people, even if they don’t want to admit it, want to start running to lose weight.
If your goal is to run a marathon, know that you can do that marathon, but ask yourself “Why do I want to run a marathon?” Is it to prove to someone that you can do it? That’s a good motivating factor, but that’s not going to carry you through. It needs to be about you. Running doesn’t always need to be something that you enjoy, but it does always need to be a choice that you make for yourself.
What can the running community at large do to make the sport more approachable and inclusive?
The running world is so monolithic in terms of body size, race, and gender. The best work we can do is internal. We need to deal with our own racial bias and fatphobia.
We’re seeing more representation, which is amazing, but we don’t see brands sticking up for the people that they’re putting out there. For instance, you see so many nasty comments about plus-size [athletes and models in workout gear], but you don’t see those same brands commenting back and saying, “Your fatphobia is showing.” We need [brands] to name these harmful behaviors; otherwise, nothing is going to change.
What do you hope the running world looks like in the future?
I would love for the space to be safer and more supportive of slow runners and not always put fast runners first. Take the New York City Marathon, for example — I would love for slow runners to not have to start the race at 11:30 a.m. and end after dark.
Running doesn’t have to be about chasing huge goals. Joyful movement can be running, or it can be squirming around on the floor, dancing, rock climbing, or surfing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.