Running On Empty
By Issy G.
I follow just about every running outlet on the Internet, so I had always believed that I was pretty in-the-know about all things running. Sure, I might have known every stat about the top runners in the nation. But I wasn’t aware of one of the most pressing issues in the running community. I didn’t understand why some of the girls around me looked so unhealthy, or why rising stars in high school fizzled out and faced injury after injury.
I hadn’t heard of the term “female athlete triad” until my junior year of high school. The triad consists of three components: low energy availability with or without an eating disorder, menstrual dysfunction, and low bone density. These three components wreak havoc on the female body, and can lead to long-term or permanent damage such as broken bones or infertility. I think that it’s pretty revealing that I was clueless to a phenomenon that affects so many women and girls. In fact, around 78% of high school athletes experience one or more of the three components of the triad (Hoch). Why didn’t I know that the triad was especially prevalent among female endurance athletes like myself? It had taken me ten years of running to even hear the term, let alone understand its consequences and effects on girls in the running community.
At that point I had gone through what, in my opinion, was the most impressionable part of my life as an athlete: my body had changed as I hit puberty, and I had adapted. My perspective of myself and others in the sport was changing as well; I was much more conscious of the other body types I saw on the line. Although I made it through this time healthily, many female athletes are not so lucky. I’ve definitely dealt with my share of health issues, but they’ve always been manageable and relatively minor. I never developed an eating disorder or lost my period as a result of running. I’ve never had a stress fracture due to a lack of estrogen or nutrition. Not every female runner can say the same.
One of the most high profile cases of the female athlete triad is that of Mary Cain. In her New York Times Op Ed, she recounts how “an all-male Nike staff became convinced that in order for [Cain] to get better, [she] had to become thinner. And thinner. And thinner.” I had grown up hearing about Mary Cain’s incredible performances, and like so many others, I had simply accepted that she was ‘burnt out,’ and that her career was over. I never questioned who or what was responsible for the breakdown of her body, and thought that this was just what happened to high school phenoms. After watching her OpEd in the New York Times, I felt as though there was finally some light being shed on an issue I’d been witnessing for a while, an issue that had really shaken my faith in the running community. I hoped that people would begin to care about the long term well-being of female runners, and not just sit in awe of stars who burned really bright when they were still just girls. I hoped that young girls would be able to pursue their goals in a sustainable way, without putting their bodies on the line.
One of Cain’s allegations in particular stuck with me. When describing her time with the Nike Oregon Project, Cain says, “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.” It’s not just one program or one coach that caused Cain’s downfall. Rather, the lack of regard for and miseducation about female bodies in this sport is what causes girls’ bodies to break down. Alberto and his all-male team did not adapt Cain’s training to be feasible or sustainable on the female body. Cain points to the lack of female coaches as one of the factors that made her feel so unheard and hopeless at the Nike Oregon Project. Again, this rings true across the running community, not just for the Oregon Project. According to a 2018 study, just ten women held head track and field coaching positions at NCAA Division 1 schools, compared to 83 men; for cross-country, 17 women and 86 men (Strout). I think that disparity is significant, and that with more female coaches, female athletes will be more seen and heard.
I don’t want to come off as offering a be-all-end-all solution to such a complex problem. I know that it’s not as simple as hiring more female coaches, or requiring coaches to learn about the triad and prevention techniques. But I do think that female athletes deserve to be heard and voice their grievances with a system that exploits their successes and then discards them when their bodies begin to break down. Cain’s story resonated with so many women in the running community, including myself. She helped to expose the flaws in the system, and has demonstrated how the stories that we tell can help to enact tangible, positive change in the running community. As I enter a more intense phase in my running career, I do so with hope. I believe in this sport and the running community to continue the narrative that Cain started. I believe that we can teach sustainability and health. And I believe that we can get really fast, on our own terms.
Hoch, Anne Z et al. "Prevalence of the female athlete triad in high school
athletes and sedentary students." Clinical journal of sport medicine :
official journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine vol. 19,5
(2009): 421-8. doi:10.1097/JSM.0b013e3181b8c136
Cain, Mary. "I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike." The New
York Times, 7 Nov. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/opinion/
nike-running-mary-cain.html. Accessed 2 June 2020.
Strout, Erin. "American Running Needs More Female Coaches." Outside, 14 Sept.
Accessed 2 June 2020.
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