GSB Interview

Tina Muir: Elite Marathoner Turned Women’s Health, Climate Advocate, Author


Tina Muir reached the elite levels of long distance running, turning in a world class personal best of 2:36 in the marathon in 2016. She has used her platform to share her personal experiences with existential internal self-esteem and body dysmorphia issues and how she has been able to deal with them.

Now, with her soon-to-be-published book, Becoming A Sustainable Runner, Muir is taking on the climate change, an existential external issue. Specifically, she provides runners with ways they can play an important part in the much needed #ClimateComeback.

GreenSportsBlog: Tina, when did you get into running? Were you one of the kids who started as a toddler?

Tina Muir: Not at all! I actually hated it growing up in St Albans, England. I remember in middle school; I was asked to try out for the cross-country team. I so didn’t want to do it that I hid in the bathroom to get out of it!

GSB: Well, there is substantial evidence that you eventually did leave!

Tina: Yes, I did! Somehow when I was 14, I started to get into running — no idea how that happened. Within a few months, I finished 4th in a local race, which I thought was pretty good. The next year I made it to UK National Championships in cross-country where I finished 222nd. I knew I could’ve done better. The next year, when I was 16, I finished 40th. And then I improved to 16th when I was 17, in my final year of high school.

GSB: That’s tremendous progress. I imagine you had a coach who drove you hard.

Tina: You would think so but my club coach, Brad Plummer, was adamant about not pushing me too hard. He wanted me to 1) be a lifelong runner, 2) not damage my body and 3) avoid burnout. This really saved my running. Truth be told, I always wanted to do more, to push harder but he pumped the brakes and taught me to listen to my body and that was to my benefit. Which I didn’t see at the time, but it clicked for me in university after my body had matured more fully.

Tina Muir (Photo credit: Sandy Gutierrez)

GSB: Where did you go to university?

Tina: I looked to go to school in the USA. We had lived in Indiana when I was a kid for three years — my dad worked for Ford — so the States didn’t seem so foreign.

My high school PE teacher tried to dissuade me, saying that the US college sports system was risky. ‘They run you into the ground and send you home,’ he said. But I decided to take that chance.

So, I first went to California to volunteer as a coaching assistant with a university team, with the goal of going to school out there. Unfortunately, my student visa was denied. Then, two weeks before the fall semester was going to start, the track coach at Ferris State University, a Division II school in Michigan, was able to persuade me to try again to get a visa at the last minute, this time they accepted. That turned out to be life changing.

GSB: WOW! But I’m guessing the switch from California sunshine to Michigan winters might have dampened your enthusiasm.

Tina: You might not believe this, Lew but I LOVED the Michigan weather, including running on knee-deep golf course snow!

GSB: I do believe it, given your desire to challenge yourself. Aside from the weather and thinking about the warning from your high school PE teacher about the spit ’em out culture in US college sports, what was the vibe like at Ferris State?

Tina: Now, to be honest, by the end of my five years at Ferris State, I was totally over snow, but those first few years, I loved it!

The culture was intense and serious. They wanted me to run every day of the week; I had not gone at the kind of frequency and wasn’t it that kind of shape. So, it took me about a year to get used to that — a sports psychologist helped me to mature and to deal with not getting great results in races early. And in the last race in my outdoor track season, things really clicked. That summer, I trained very hard and was very much looking forward to my second season at Ferris State.

But the school hired a new track coach, and that put me off balance a bit.

GSB: Why was that?

Tina: I thought he didn’t know what he was doing!

GSB: What gave you that impression?

Tina: It was his first time coaching collegiate athletes, but in my first 6K cross-country race, he said I should go slowly over the first mile — around 6:30 — and then kick it in a higher gear after that. I came in 2nd in that race — it felt great to come from behind. That was a precursor to a 12th place season-long finish in all of Division II. From then on, I trusted him. And my results showed it.

In my fourth season of outdoor track, I came in 5th in the 10K in Division II. Then in my 5th season, which I had because of injury in a previous year, I finished 2nd in my final race and was chosen by the NCAA as one of the finalists for the NCAA Women of the Year across all sports and divisions. They picked the top 30 athletes based on three metrics: running, academics and community service.

GSB: Congratulations! That’s really impressive. What did you do next?

Tina: A recreation, wellness, and leadership major at Ferris State, I then went on to LaSalle University in Philadelphia for my MBA. I pursued business, running, and coaching at the same time as I was a graduate assistant coach for the track team. As a runner, I started going for longer distances, with half-marathons and marathons starting to become my go-to races.

My first marathon result was not pretty, but I started training with the men and that helped me improve. While I was at LaSalle and then after I moved to Kentucky, post-MBA, the Team GB coaches started to watch me. The former called me into the team for the 2016 World Championships in the half-marathon and marathon. And then I ran a personal best marathon at the London Marathon, and then a few months later, lowered it again to 2:36!

Muir finishes the World Half Marathon in 2016 (Photo credit: Nicky Hayes)

GSB: So, you were on a roll! Where did the Olympic Games fit into your plans?

Tina: Well, I didn’t end up going that route. I was starting to struggle to get motivated for my races. The stress I felt was beyond intense and it impacted my health. I hadn’t had my period for nine years! And I hadn’t been fueling myself properly for racing at the elite level. This was intentional: I was obsessed with looking fitter. The insomnia related to my perfectionism was really wearing me down, and something inside me snapped.

It was all too much so, I quit running. I needed a break and wanted to move to the next chapter of my life, being a mom. I needed to work on myself to figure out why I felt the way I looked defined me, why running defined me. When I was at the starting line, I thought I was fat and not good enough. I couldn’t take it anymore and wasn’t sure I would ever run again.

GSB: A break sounds like the exact right thing to do. What did you do during that time period?

Tina: I started to try to untangle the relationship between running, my body, and who I was. Since I was pregnant with my first of two daughters, I began to think about the messages young girls are given, and I didn’t want my daughter to feel the way I did about her body.

So, I took what ended up becoming a three-to-four-month break from running. Then I started to ease back into it during the first trimester of that pregnancy, going at a relaxed, comfortable pace. I have to admit, it was a struggle to only run for 45 minutes. Despite acknowledging to myself that ‘hey, you’re pregnant,’ my old vulnerabilities about what I should be doing kept finding their way back.

GSB: How did you deal with the presence of those vulnerabilities?

Tina: I kept at it. In 2018, about a year after my first daughter Bailey was born, I entered my first half-marathon. I deliberately chose a race at Disney World because what says ‘fun’ like the Magic Kingdom? I even wore a tutu! And yet, despite my emphasis on it being fun and not pushing myself too hard, I won the race.

Then I decided to run the Boston Marathon in 2019. This was the opposite of the Disney World half. I did not enjoy it at all. I was 20 minutes slower than my personal best. It was hard work for the entire 26 miles 385 yards. I hated it.

GSB: So, it seems like you were in a place where you couldn’t find peace in your running: You didn’t really enjoy winning the Disney race and you hated it when you struggled in Boston. How did you reconcile those two poles? What did you do next?

Tina: Well, I knew that something needed to change. I had to let go of feeling awful when I would give everything. I also was feeling guilty for all the people who had sacrificed for me that I wasn’t performing better and that I was unhappy.

So, I decided to get out of my head, get out of myself and to give back. First thing I did was to become a guide for visually impaired runners…to literally run for someone else.

GSB: Talk about giving back! How did that work for you?

Tina: I absolutely LOVED it. In 2019, while pregnant with my second daughter, I guided for the first time, and it was magical. In 2021, I ran Boston again with a visually impaired runner and friend. I’m smiling in every photo. Really, I had the time of my life even though I didn’t really care about our running time.

GSB: That’s wonderful, Tina. Now that we’re talking about ‘giving back’, when did you decide to start giving on climate…and why?

Tina: I’ve always been concerned about the environment. Wasted energy and wasted food always bothered me. I vividly remember the ‘FernGully’ environmentally themed kids movie series. It took place in a forest where fairies lived and where a monster would chop down trees to make pollution since that pollution fed him. One passage from one of the heroic characters in the series still resonates with me all these years later: 

We have too long forgotten the magic powers of nature. The time has come to call on them again. Remember: all the magic of creation exists within a single tiny seed.

Back to the present, I became more eco-conscious with my actions and talked about climate change with my friends. But I didn’t talk about it on my platforms or in Running for Real, the support network, community, and podcast for runners I founded in 2017.

GSB: What is the Running for Real podcast about and why didn’t you talk about climate change on it? After all, and as you well know, climate change is impacting running in big ways.

Tina: It originally started as a place to have conversations with runners who inspired other runners and/or gave meaningful information that could help their running. Over time though, I shifted it towards getting to know the people underneath the success and achievements.

I wanted to show everyday runners who listened that they too could do something to make the world a better place. As environmentalism had been a big passion of mine, I felt I could use my platform to grow the environmental activist community and show people how important it was to act, but also help to show listeners that they didn’t have to be extreme to do their part.

While I started to make this shift on my podcast, on social media and in my other public facing platforms, I mostly stayed quiet, I didn’t want the other environmental activists to say I wasn’t doing enough, that I was letting people off the hook. It was all fear based.

Then a friend asked me, ‘Isn’t it better to encourage people to do something — like switching away from Styrofoam coffee cups — even if that is seen as being on the small side?’ And you know what? She was right! If I could plant those seeds, I could get people to care, rather than putting their fingers in their ears and doing nothing.

So, in 2021 I began 100 Days of Sustainability on my social media and through a campaign that emailed people every day for 100 days. It provided runners with one thing people in the running community could do every day to make a difference, like biking to work a few days a week instead of walking, using the bag from their tortilla wraps as a sandwich bag, and asking their local race to offer an option to decline a race day shirt.  The response to it was amazing! In fact, within eight days, the COO of the Chicago Marathon invited me to work with the race to attention to their sustainability efforts.

GSB: That’s incredible and a great segue into your new book, Becoming a Sustainable Runner, co-authored with Zoë Rom and published by Human Kinetics. It’s being released on August 18. What led you and Zoë to write this and what is it about?

Tina: Well Lew, I always wanted to write another book after I self-published Overcoming Amenorrhea¹ in 2019. And I knew that I wanted to write about the best ways for runners to inject sustainability into their running, to be part of climate solutions, and to do so with joy in their hearts whenever possible.

Zoë, who is the editor-in-chief at Trail Runner magazine and managing editor at Women’s Running, and I looked at this book through this lens: How can individual runners and the running community more broadly can have a sustainable, long-term approach to running and become good environmental stewards? And the early response has been incredible; people really want to do the right thing. We just need to give them the tools and the space to do it.

Zoë Rahm and Tina Muir hold up a copy of Becoming A Sustainable Runner (Photo credit: Human Kinetics)

GSB: What are a couple of those tools that you detail in the book?

Tina: A lot of the focus in the first section is about redefining our relationship to our sports and to ourselves. We help folks think differently about why they are doing sport, and how to look at their sport with a long-term lens.

The middle section of the book is about leveling up your quality of life through giving back by volunteering at local races, being a guide, mentoring at every level, and finding your community. The third section is all about environmental activism and we provide lots of ways to reconsider the decisions being made.

For runners, there is often a push to buy a lot of clothing and other items. We recommend purchasing fewer items but making them quality as one example. Beyond that, at the end of each chapter we provide “Action Steps” that give the reader multiple ways to put what we talked about in that chapter into practice.

GSB: Thank you Tina for sharing your story and your new book, Becoming a Sustainable Runner, co-authored with Zoë Rom and published by Human Kinetics. It is an important read for runners and for anyone else who wants to become a better environmental steward. I’m betting that the majority of the folks reading this post will want to do just that. You can buy the book from Amazon or your favorite retailer.

¹ Amenorrhea = absence of one’s period


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