I have been an athlete for most of my life. I swam competitively from the age of 13-19 even making it to the NCAA level. Working in fitness, my job has been pretty physical. At one point, I was hiking about 25 miles a week and teaching 4-5 fitness classes. During this time, I would also run for fun and completed a half marathon.
When I recently read an article on Outside Magazine about changing the distance in women’s running to match the distance run by male athletes, I became very frustrated about one particular statement made by Diljeet Taylor, the head coach of Brigham Young University. She was quoted as saying “she would personally not be in favor of her athletes racing longer distances, as a higher training volume might increase their risk of injury, as well as their susceptibility to RED-S related issues like chronic fatigue and missed periods.” This statement baffled me and demonstrated a complete lack of current movement science.
First, the proposed changes would have women running 10k instead of 6k. This ultimately is a difference of 2.5 miles. While it may seem big, in the amateur running world races are 5k (3.1 miles), 10k (6.2 miles), half-marathon (13.1 miles), and marathon (26.2 miles). Everyday runners sign up for these events with about 60% of registered athletes being female. I’m sure many are just following a program they got online. I have signed up and completed races at each distance and done so without a coach. (Granted, I have my knowledge to help me.)
To address the statement that there is an increased risk of injury with increased training. This is true and overuse injuries are common. That is why coaches exist. Their job is to take an athlete and create a training program that will bring out the best the athlete is capable of. Sometimes it means pushing an athlete. Sometimes it is about pulling them back.
Weight training, recovery tools, cross training, and a smart training system can help an athlete safely increase distances. When I trained for my marathon, I did all of these. I would spend an hour prepping my body before long runs, worked out in a pool two times a week, rolled on therapy balls, and did strength training. The end result was that I felt better the next day after my race than I did after half marathon races.
No sport is fully injury proof and a pebble in the road could be an issue for a runner. However, collegiate athletes have access to Athletic Trainers, Physical Therapists, and/or more to help them. (My swim team at Ithaca College has a designated AT student at all practices and meets.)
Proper coaching and training works. To say otherwise, is a coach that I consider lazy.
To address the second point that increasing the distance puts women at a higher risk of amenorrhea (the lack of a period), chronic fatigue, and osteoporosis due to RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport) again to me demonstrates a lack of knowledge and laziness.
Many coaches actually encourage disordered eating to have their athletes be thinner and leaner. This ultimately leads to RED-S. Nike’s Running Team Coaching has come under scrutiny after several of their female runners spoke up about how they were cooked small meals by coaches, weighed constantly, and told to lose weight. Disordered eating is prevalent enough in society with girls as young as 8 having been on a diet add in well intentioned, but inaccurate coaching is a recipe for injuries and RED-S.
Teaching athletes how to eat to fuel their bodies is important. Making sure they have enough calories to go through their workouts and recover is more crucial and will result in better performance with fewer injuries. A registered dietician will do wonders on a team.
Coaches need to have a system to discuss periods and menstrual cycles with their athletes. Monitoring them is a sign of how the training and diet is working and can better create a change in a training program to keep the athlete in peak condition. This may be a challenge, as periods are a topic most people don’t want to talk about despite the fact that women menstruate for about 40 years of their lives. It’s still considered taboo.
I know there are great coaches and I’ve been privileged to have many during my competitive swimming career. One of the best comments I ever heard from Paula Miller, longtime former women’s swim coach at Ithaca College, to a fellow teammate was “You swim better when you’re heavier. Keep up the weight training.” That stuck with me.
Ultimately, I think we need systemic change to move away from athletes’ weights to updated science. While this conversation is happening more about female athletes, I’m sure similar poor training is happening for men as well. Whether or not the distance changes, athletes need proper coaching. Some of the athletes of today will be the coaches of the future. Patterns need to break if they aren’t serving athletes. That is what I really care about.
Kate Hamm combines her 15+ years of experience in the fitness industry and high-end resort program development into sought after wellness coaching and adventures at AnamBliss. Visit www.anambliss.com for more information on coaching services and future retreat dates and locations.