Subtitle: The Sub-4:30 Mile (Introduction)
Posted on March 3rd, 2023
By Olivia Baker
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 the center.
1. What 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?
2. What barriers to equal opportunity have you identified within women's running?
Subtitle: Invisible Women (Mini-blog #1)
Posted on March 9th, 2023
By Olivia Baker
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 field.
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.
For 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.
We 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.
Athletic 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 acted upon.
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.
1. The 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?
2. "When 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)
March 17th, 2023
By Olivia Baker
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.
1. Have you ever had to overcome an injury? If so (if you feel comfortable sharing), what did the recovery look like?
2. This 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.
Subtitle: The Empowered Woman (Mini-blog #3)
Posted on March 23rd, 2023
By Olivia Baker
"i 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).
1. What would it look like for you to advocate for the advancement of women in sports in your community?
2. Leaving 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.