Throughout my time as varsity distance runner, I heard numerous stories of female runners who produced fast times early in their career but, ultimately, were forced to give up the sport before reaching their full potential. Typically, the story goes something like this: a young girl with impressive endurance and natural talent produces fast times for her age before she hits puberty. Then puberty hits, her body changes, and for a period of time she can no longer hit the times she once could. In an attempt to run faster and fit the “ideal” body image of a distance runner, she will fall into a pattern of overtraining and under-eating. This will inevitably lead to mental and physical burnout, injury, and mental health issues. This training pattern is unsustainable, and many young females who go down this path have no choice but to give up the sport.
I started running at twelve years old when I joined my middle school cross country team. Being from Prince Edward Island the smallest of Canada’s provinces, I was able to quickly find success in the sport and gained self-confidence that I never had before. In high school I was the provincial cross country champion each year and I represented team PEI at the 2017 Canada Games in track and field. I continued running in university, where I competed for the Dalhousie Tigers while pursuing my undergrad. Over the past decade, I have trained with and competed against female runners from across the country. My experiences have shown me how much of a positive aspect running can be in one’s life. However, I have also witnessed how unhealthy training environments and an ignorance towards female specific health issues can leave female runners feeling neglected and unhappy. There were times in my life where I valued my performances more than my own happiness and each time I failed to live up to my own expectations and the expectations of those around me, I was left feeling worthless. This mindset was not one that I always had, but one that developed after I was exposed to a culture that at times values short-term performance over long-term well-being. In more recent years, I have distanced myself from the narrative that my self-worth is based on the times I am capable of running right now. This change in perspective happened gradually and is largely a result of help from my former teammates who showed me that the most important aspects of the sport lie outside of team championships and individual performances. I am writing this now in the hopes that this may help shift the perspectives of other young female runners who can relate to some of the experiences I describe herein. I hope that by shedding light on the issues female varsity runners face, the Canadian running community will feel compelled to do more to protect and support them.
The running careers of so many promising young female athletes should not have to end so abruptly, nor should these girls feel forced to sacrifice their health and happiness for fast times and team championships. Though many runners may not be willing to admit it, the culture in the sport is toxic at times, as training and winning take precedent over mental and physical well-being. Many varsity coaches preach a win at all costs mentality, in which athletes feel obligated to perform at their peak at all times, or risk being overlooked by their coach and replaced by someone faster. The alleged events that took place at the University of Guelph are an extreme example of how a coach’s win at all cost mentality threatens the mental and physical health of their athletes. The abusive behaviour of certain coaches often goes unnoticed because they are glorified and protected by systems and cultures that overlook personal wrongdoings in favour of institutional success. However, if certain issues within the sport are addressed, particularly those that pertain to the ethical treatment of female athletes, it is possible to improve the sport’s culture and build programs that promote the long-term development of athletes beyond their five years on a varsity team.
As it is with most sports, the majority of varsity cross country and track coaches are men. A lack of female representation amongst coaches means that female teams are not provided with the support system they need. Many varsity training programs are unconsciously biased towards the male experience as male coaches are more likely to be ignorant to the specific issues that female runners face. For example, most training plans are designed to be one-size fits all, meaning that both male and female athletes are prescribed similar workouts and are expected to develop at the same rate and peak at the same time. From an outside perspective this may seem like the right thing to do, as both male and female athletes are being treated equally. However, training programs should not strive towards equal treatment, rather, aim for equity. Coaches should give more attention to the physiological and hormonal differences between men and women and what this means for training, recovery, and nutrition.
It is not uncommon for female runners to lose their periods, which is a symptom of RED-S or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. RED-S is the result of a calorie deficit caused by overtraining and under-eating and can lead to injury, severe fatigue and burnout. Unfortunately, RED-S can very easily go unnoticed in female runners especially if coaches are not willing to have conversations with their female athletes about their periods. Both male and female athletes can suffer from RED-S; however, it most commonly occurs in female athletes. During my time in the sport I knew multiple female runners who did not have regular periods and yet, coaches did not openly discuss the associated risks with the team.
Eating disorders are also incredibly prevalent among female runners. Sadly, many feel as though they must conform to the “ideal” runner’s body type, one that is often unattainably thin, in order to run fast. Coaches can contribute to this unhealthy mindset even if they do not weigh their athletes or support the idea that lighter runners will run faster. Making off-handed comments or insensitive jokes about weight, failing to recognize early signs of eating disorders and allowing athletes that show these signs to compete are just some of the ways varsity coaches can contribute to a toxic attitude towards eating amongst their athletes. Though most varsity coaches in Canada do not consciously support ideas that lead to eating disorders, all coaches, both male and female, must educate themselves about the warning signs of eating disorders and promote a team atmosphere where their athletes feel comfortable discussing eating in a positive way.
Many runners, including myself, consider running to be a part of our identity, and we hope to continue running well beyond our varsity careers. It is heartbreaking that so many young female runners grow to resent the sport because of the damage it can do to their mental and physical health. Some of the great friends and teammates I have gained during my time in the sport have stepped away from competitive running because it was no longer a positive aspect of their lives. These girls are incredibly dedicated and talented athletes who felt they had no choice but to push themselves to their breaking points both mentally and physically. In some cases, they pushed through injuries and suffered from untreated eating disorders while competing. This is a direct result of the lack of support given to female runners and the win at all costs mentality that is fostered in varsity sport. I believe I gained more from spending time with these girls and learning from them than I ever will from training and competition. If the toxic culture of varsity running is to ever be erased, programs must recognize that the value of our sport extends far beyond championships and personal bests. The most valuable aspects of competitive running are intangible and lie in the mental and physical health benefits of running itself as well as the relationships that are formed between teammates and competitors.
Moving forward, varsity running teams must actively try to resist the toxic culture that has developed in our sport and provide more support to female runners. Coaches must have open conversations with their female athletes about the prevalence of eating disorders and emphasize the importance of proper nutrition. There should also be more female representation among coaching staff as no one understands the female experience in competitive running more than those who have been through it. Female athletes should never feel pressure to over train to the point of irreparable injury or to lose weight to fit an “ideal” body type. Coaches must instil a team atmosphere in which their athletes feel supported and valued as opposed to neglected and expendable. It is time that varsity programs acknowledge their insensitivities, re-evaluate their priorities, and raise awareness for the unique issues that female runners face.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, making the choice to leave the sport needs to be destigmatized. Many athletes continue to train and compete long after they have lost enjoyment in the sport, simply because they do not want to appear weak. Making the decision to leave varsity running for the sake of one’s mental and physical well-being should not be considered a weakness but rather, a strength. Choosing to give up something that no longer makes you happy demonstrates both courage and self-awareness and should be applauded, not stigmatized. The varsity running community needs to recognize that while competing and winning are important, there are many other aspects that bring value to our lives and these should no longer be sacrificed for the sake of short term success in the sport.