The Sub-4:30 Mile (Introduction)
on March 3rd, 2023
There has long been a debate in the running community
regarding the 4:30 mile for women. Is a sub-4:30 mile for women comparable to a
sub-4 minute mile for men and if so, why is there such a disparity season after
season between the number of men and women who dip under those respective marks?
With many a fast mile having been run this indoor season and the NCAA Division
I Indoor Championships—one of the only international championships that races a
mile instead of a 1500m—right around the corner, such a debate has been
lighting up the track and field corners of social media of late. Only 2 NCAA DI
women have broken the 4:30 barrier while 93 DI men have broken 4 minutes this
year (per TFFRS as of 2/27/23). Some would say that the discrepancy is mostly
due to the standard. 4:30 is too harsh, perhaps a better comparison would be
4:36 some people suggest. However, such a change would still only account for
about a third of the gap between men and women under those respective times.
Others suggest that the cause of such a disparity has nothing to do with the 4:30
time, rather, there are much more complex factors at play.
Twitter user Jessica Gabriel (@jessicadgabriel) chimed
into the debate suggesting that "The hard truth is that, historically speaking,
women have had way less time and way fewer opportunities during that time to
break the barrier of 4:30. That doesn't mean that, when put in the context of
the evolution of the sport, 4:30 isn't comparable to 4:00…Instead of landing on
a different barrier for women that doesn't acknowledge that reality—the reality
of the exclusion of women from track and field and running in a broader
historical sense, and therefore the reality that the trend of the number of
women breaking a difficult barrier will be a couple decades behind the numbers
on the men's side—I like to think about what the 4:30 list will look like 20
years from now." In short, there are far more avenues for men to participate in
running and to reach the elite level of running than women because they have
historically had more opportunities and more time to address any barriers they've
faced. We are just now beginning to address some of those barriers in women's
running (some of which I wrote about here: Challenges
and Triumphs in Women's Running History | Atlanta Track Club not
too long ago) and the 4:30/4:00 discrepancy is a byproduct of that inequality.
For example, training methods over the years were researched
and optimized for men while we are just now, in the last decade or so, studying
how to optimize training to help women get the most out of their bodies as they
go through things like puberty and menstruation. A culture in elite distance
running that associates thinness with speed in ways that encourage eating
disorders, and is especially harmful to women, is just now being addressed. I
chose Good For A Girl by Lauren
Fleshman for the 14th installment of Runners Who Read because I believe
that it will give us the chance to examine the barriers to equal opportunity in
sports for women and further equip us with actionable ways to break down those
walls. First we'll listen, then we'll discuss, and by the end, I hope that we
can all take part in reimagining the systems of competitive sport with women at
are your thoughts on the 4:30/4:00 debate? Are those times for men and women
comparable? Why do you think there is such a discrepancy?
barriers to equal opportunity have you identified within women's running?
Women (Mini-blog #1)
on March 9th, 2023
Did you know that the NCAA, established in 1910 for
the purpose of protecting student-athletes still does not have any
female-specific policies or best practices (pg#93)? The bylaws were written
with men in mind (because they were written when almost only men competed in
collegiate sports) and have continued to prioritize the male body as the
default despite the growth of women in sports. Throughout the first 6 chapters
of Good For A Girl by Lauren
Fleshman, we see how such infrastructure at the high school and collegiate
level impacted the culture in which Fleshman grew up in the sport of track and
From being the girl who beat all the boys in gym class
growing up to the high school phenom and eventual multiple-time NCAA Champion
we see her rise through the ranks. While she considers herself lucky to have
gone through the changes of puberty fairly unscathed—only having a one-year
plateau in performance and having coaches who were at least caring and well-meaning
even if they were ill-equipped—she observes a culture that harms teammates and
competitors alike. A culture that overvalued the belief that lower weight leads
to better performance and expected linear improvement similar to that of men
going through puberty led to stress fractures, eating disorders, and shame
amongst her peers in the distance running community. Fortunately, alongside
those stories, she offers hope in the form of solutions.
starters, anyone and everyone working with female athletes must be able to talk
about puberty and periods (pg#49). Talking is the bare
minimum and very little to ask, yet this must be stated. The lack of required
education on female physiology (namely puberty and menstruation) and a cultural
sexualization of women's bodies that conflates natural biological processes
with sexuality leaves most coaches feeling ill-equipped to have these important
conversations. Removing the stigma that comes with talking about periods and
creating an environment in which young women and girls can be safe to talk
about their menstrual health would go a long way towards helping female
athletes navigate puberty in healthy ways.
need to identify the predictable landmines of negative body image and eating
disorder culture (pg#96). According to the National Eating
Disorders Association (NEDA) there are four risk factors are thought to
particularly contribute to a female athlete's vulnerability to developing an
eating disorder: social influences emphasizing thinness, performance anxiety,
negative self-appraisal of athletic achievement, and an identity solely based
on participation in athletics (NEDA, Eating
Disorders and Athletes, 2022). It is imperative that we look out for these
risk factors and make sure that our sports spaces discourage them.
departments need to be armed with official policies for preventing and treating
eating disorders to maximize full recoveries (pg#96). Eating
disorders are the largest threat to athlete mental health that
disproportionally affects women (pg#56), yet the NCAA has no official policy
concerning them. Similar to the way that policies and standards were set when
the damaging effects of repeated concussions presented a potential liability to
the NCAA, so too should the impact of eating disorders be acknowledged and
Equality for women in sports has often looked like a
squeezing of women into male-based infrastructure and treating them like men
with little done to address the woman-specific issues in that space. As we move
forward, the hope is that we can change the shape of the infrastructure to fit
all of the people coming into it.
language we use is important. Throughout the book, Fleshman gives us several
examples of how the language we use to talk about sports tends to glorify male
traits, using phrases like "man-up" for instance, while painting female traits
as negative i.e. "throwing like a girl". What other phrases can you think of
that are harmful to women in sports and what would you change them to?
it comes to addressing the largest threat to athlete mental health that
disproportionately affects women [eating disorders]…the NCAA takes a
libertarian approach: Coaches can do something to prevent and manage them, or
not, and they aren't held responsible either way." (pg#56). Should coaches be
held responsible in some way for the presence of eating disorders on their
teams? What other issues within teams should coaches/team staff be held
accountable for on their teams?
Subtitle: The Biggest Lesson (When Healing from Injury) (Mini-blog#2)
If you've been running long enough, chances are,
you've encountered an injury at some point in your running career. From the
most elite champions and record-holders to everyday runners and joggers, almost
everyone has dealt with injury but few have been through them at such career
altering moments as Lauren Fleshman. Within 2 months of the Olympic trials in
both 2004 and 2008, Fleshman battled with foot injuries that ultimately kept
her from making both Olympic teams. In the midst of the grief and reflection
that ensued, she shares with us one big piece of wisdom that she wishes she had
during her career in hopes that we won't make the same mistake.
In short, the most important factor in healing an
injury is proper fueling. As one of the best distance runners in the US with
the backing of Nike as a sponsor, Fleshman had access to state-of-the-art
recovery equipment and a team of doctors who specialized in running injuries.
If anyone was positioned to recover from a stress fracture in the second
metatarsal within 6 weeks of the 2004 Olympic trials it was her. Through
intense cross-training in the pool morning and evening, she maintained her
fitness. She slept 9 hours per night and made sure to get a nap in almost every
day. Not once did she let her foot touch the ground outside of her walking
boot, strictly adhering to doctors' orders. So why then, 2 weeks before the
Olympic Trials (4 weeks after the initial injury) did an X-ray show that her
injury had actually gotten worse? She was suffering from Relative Energy Deficiency
in Sport, also known as RED-S.
A restricted diet that limited intake in the lead-up
to the Trials—so as not to gain too much weight—and an underestimation of the energy
demands of cross training put her body in a state of low energy availability,
likely disrupting the hormones responsible for the bone-building she so
desperately needed during that critical period. In the short term, placing the
body at such a deficit can significantly slow healing of an injury. In the long
term, it can disrupt the reproductive cycle, decrease the efficacy of one's
immune system, and cause someone to have lower than average bone density. The last
one is particularly damaging to young women who only have the small window of
years up until age 26 to build the entire bone bank from which they draw for
the rest of their lives (pg#127). In the end, it was only once she took time
completely off and began meeting her energy needs again that the injury healed
and even then, it took twice as long as they had initially thought it would.
Without the modern framework of RED-S (that came nearly 10 years after the '04 trials
[pg#128]), she would unfortunately continue to struggle with low energy
availability and though the impact of dealing with RED-S at this time in her
life would reverberate through the rest of her time racing professionally, she
would not let it stop her from having a great career and spreading awareness so
that others didn't share in the same mistakes.
We too can learn from this. Having an injury, even
close to a race, doesn't necessarily mean that we have to give up on our
fitness and goals. However, we must prioritize proper fueling to maximize both
our recovery and fitness.
you ever had to overcome an injury? If so (if you feel comfortable sharing),
what did the recovery look like?
week's quote for discussion comes from chapter 12. After failing to make the
Olympic team in 2008, Lauren reflects thinking "Back then I thought those who
succeeded deserved it, and those who didn't messed up. Now I knew better than
ever. I deserved nothing. None of us do." (pg# 185). What do you make of this
quote? What, if anything, do we deserve in sport? This may be more a question
of philosophy than anything else.
Empowered Woman (Mini-blog #3)
on March 23rd, 2023
stand on the sacrifices of a million women before me thinking what can i do to
make this mountain taller so the women after me can see farther" -
Rupi Kaur, the sun and her flowers
How can we make sports better for the next generation
of women? Throughout the final chapters of Good
For A Girl by Lauren Fleshman, we see her take action towards embodying and
creating the future she wants to see for women's running and sports in general.
As a professional athlete, we see her advocate for pregnancy support within
sponsorship contracts at Nike. After leaving Nike and choosing to work for
Oiselle, a brand created by women and for women, she pushes the brand to
embrace intersectionality in their feminism by including more women of color
and true body diversity. As a coach of Littlewing Athletics (the professional
women's track team sponsored by Oiselle), she created an environment that allowed
her athletes to compete at their best by training hard, but being empowered to
listen to their bodies rather than subscribing to "the dominant paradigm that
athletes are disposable and that winning was worth just about any price."
(pg#246-247). She was actively creating the environment that she wishes she and
many other young girls and women had had coming up through the sport. However,
as great as the contributions are of one individual doing right by women in
running, or even a group of individuals creating multiple safe spaces for girls
and women to develop in sports, it simply is not enough (as Fleshman
acknowledges) without systemic change.
"Title IX opened a door fifty years ago that can never
be closed again. But equality doesn't end at the equal right to play. True
equality in sports, like any other industry, requires rebuilding the systems so
there is an equal chance to thrive." (pg#257). This is where collective action
has a huge role and everyone can play a part, even those not directly in
sporting environments. If you have a role in policymaking (or know someone in
this role) at the local, state, or national level or with a school or sports
team, consider advocating for measures to protect the health of women in sports
as it pertains to issues of eating disorders, RED-S, menstrual health, etc. Educators
can put together materials that would inform people about the female
performance wave through puberty to help create a better training environment for
girls coming up in sports. Researchers can add to the growing body of information
about training and menstruation to optimize elite performance and these are
just a few ways. We need leaders in all fields to continue to push women's
sports forward towards a place where women are not just included, but empowered.
If you don't feel like you have such a role, then simply contributing your
story would help. As Lauren Fleshman writes "But we also need stories. A flood
of them. The invisible and forbidden. The small stuff that adds up to big
change." (pg# 258).
would it look like for you to advocate for the advancement of women in sports
in your community?
space this week for anyone who feels comfortable simply to share a story of
your experience as a woman in sports or as someone who has witnessed some of
the inequality women have faced in sports. Also a space to share one
interesting fact that you learned from this book.