Every year, girls bring questions to my running camp. Unfortunately, we can’t hold camp in Oregon this summer. But I can share answers to the most frequently asked questions with you, especially because I hear similar requests at every practice and meet.
Athletes and their parents have been picking my brain for decades. Year after year, I hear variations on similar themes: How should I train throughout the years, with physical growth and puberty, and race faster? What are good mental approaches (including stress management and goal-setting)? What about nutrition and weight?!
That’s one reason I wanted to write Girls Running: All You Need To Strive, Thrive, and Run Your Best, a guide for young runners addressing all these questions and more. Another reason for the book? It’s time to set the record straight. It’s past time for young runners to know that common misconceptions about females can be unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. This includes expectations of me as a high school “phenom.”
Too often I hear stories about unhealthy running experiences and undue pressure. Whether they’re figuring out how to navigate puberty and periods, or expected to run faster and faster with every race, runner girls hear myths and encounter taboos. Such misguided ideas can point runners in the wrong direction, like a misplaced cross-country course marker.
These detours can derail seasons, health, mindset, longevity, and even one’s love of running. But they need not! With the right information, positive support, patience, and grace, young runners can flourish into long-time successful athletes and — most importantly — have fun.
Here are the top three frequently asked questions I hear from runners and their parents, which we cover in-depth in Girls Running, plus how to get going on the right foot.
Q. Does losing my period mean I’m a good runner?
Missing a period is called amenorrhea. It might seem common or maybe even convenient, but it’s a red flag.
Periods (the collective days you “bleed,” when the lining of your uterus sheds) are part of the menstrual cycle, a sign of reproductive health as well as overall health. Periods should start a year or so after you begin puberty, or by age 16. At first, they might be irregular when and how they show up, but they should settle into a rhythm. That’s one indicator of how your endocrine and nervous systems are functioning. They set you up for effective training, competition, well-being, and even long-term development (See: bone growth)!
When your period goes missing, or if it comes (or doesn’t) with specific symptoms, see a healthcare professional such as a doctor or another sports-specific expert with credentials.
Losing your period is one signal of low energy (nutrition), stress, illness, or other conditions (including pregnancy). None of those are helpful for running your best right now. Missing periods can put you at risk for bone issues and other complications.
Q. Do I have to be thin or light to run fast?
First, let’s be clear: Any body can be a runner. If you prefer to move faster than slower, or go further than most, welcome to the running community!
Second, just because some fast runners appear to be smaller or slighter does not mean that all runners need to be “thin” to run fast. Just because a runner sees a different arbitrary number if she steps on a scale, that does not translate to speed or worthiness. Every body is different, and anyone who fits the definition above qualifies to run, with the potential to run fast.
This might sound bonkers or weird. That’s because our sport culture and larger society reinforces an unrealistic, narrow set of ideals and expectations, in particular for girls and women. The sport culture and our society say that you need to be thin to run fast(er), or look a certain way to be valued, but they’re wildly mistaken. Trust us. Diet culture and running-specific culture is erroneous and limiting; they encourage unhealthy behaviors including eating disorders that cause serious consequences and inevitable performance declines.
Rather than focus on appearance or weight, focus on the process of training, fueling sufficiently, and strengthening your mind-body connection.
Q. How do I talk to my coach when I am not feeling well, or I’m tired or injured?
A. To borrow a brand slogan from a ubiquitous sponsor of running, just do it.
Okay, I know, it might be tough. But it’s important to speak up. That’s because when you’re not feeling well, if you’re fatigued, or when you’re feeling aches and pains, your body is trying to tell you something. Trust and invest in it. As you grow up, you’ll learn to interpret these signals and tend to yourself. But especially during puberty, menstrual cycles, or stressful times, it’s beneficial for runners to tap into their support crews for help navigating what your body (and mind) are asking of you.
Based on what you’re feeling and other information, coaches should adjust your training, recovery, or other plans with the goal of optimizing your training, recovery, and competition — for both the short- and long-term.
If they don’t hear or believe you, find someone else who does. Part of being a successful, happy athlete is taking responsibility and initiative. This involves communicating with adults. Speaking up and out takes practice, so start now.
GIRLS RUNNING (VeloPress), by Melody Fairchild and Elizabeth Carey, is available for pre-order now. Melody Fairchild is a running coach, director of Boulder Mountain Warriors Youth Run Club, founder of Melody Fairchild’s Girls Running Camp, and a master’s athlete in Boulder, Colorado. Elizabeth Carey is a freelance writer and running coach in Seattle, Washington.