"The truth is that, with a little bit of patience our best performances will come from our natural bodies. The body that produces a regular period, the body that is adequately fueled, and the body that is strong, durable, and prepared to chase dreams."
Puberty is important, and the reality is that running can significantly impact our bodies ability to undergo these processes if we do not care for our bodies properly during this time.
Interfering with puberty can cause serious long term harm to our bodies. Here are some things we all need to understand about puberty for a female: We are going to get a period, we are going to gain weight, we are going to develop breasts, get more emotional, "fill out," get a little bit self conscious and our bodies are going to naturally fluctuate in weight and appearance.
These things really seem to be working against running, right? These changes sound like a recipe for getting slower. But we must understand how important it is to let our bodies go through this natural process because if we don't, our future in competitive running will most likely be very unsustainable.
This means recognizing when your athlete is in a critical period of development, and not pushing her too hard during a vulnerable time period.
Even after these changes have occurred, preserving the health of your female athletes is still a priority. Not only are we still physically developing for years, but we are in our most impressionable and vulnerable state. As young women who are invested in this sport, we are very likely to do whatever it takes to get to the top, which I will address later.
This raises a great dilemma for both the athlete and coach: Where do we draw the line? How far, and when is the right time to push our bodies to these extremes?
Female In Focus Series:
We've all seen the stakes raise higher and higher in young distance running because we are pushing our bodies to these limits at such a young age. But I must raise the question: How long will this last? Will these young athletes be burnt out or severely injured in college? Maybe they won't, and there will definitely be exceptions.
But I do know that there are far too many athletes who are pushing their bodies at the wrong time. There are far too many athletes who do not understand the implications of their decisions at a young age on their longevity in the sport. So my point here is that we need to draw this line where we are pushing young athletes enough to improve, but not at the expense of delaying puberty and putting their long term health in jeopardy. We cannot draw this line until we understand the implications that it can have on female development.
Getting a Period
What might be the most important point in this entire letter is that a female athlete should never lose her period.
This issue is far too common in distance running, and the effects can be devastating. As runners we need so much fuel to meet the energy demands of both getting a regular period and the intensity of distance running training. Missing a period should not be considered normal just because you are training hard.
As a result of not getting a period, our estrogen levels decrease. This is the hormone that keeps our bones healthy and strong. Therefore, when we aren't getting a period, our bones become weak and at an increased risk for fractures. This is the last thing we want to happen for our future running career.
Personally, after getting injured with two stress fractures for this very reason, I wish I had more knowledge about the consequences of not prioritizing my long term health before I lost my period and became too hyper focused on what I ate and how I looked in order to be good at running. I wish I had somebody tell me that these weren't actually the things that mattered, because nothing can be accomplished if you aren't even healthy enough to get to the starting line.
Similarly, I think there are many women who wish they could go back and change the way they treated their body. We wish there was somebody guiding us who prioritized our long term health.
The truth is that, with a little bit of patience our best performances will come from our natural bodies. The body that produces a regular period, the body that is adequately fueled, and the body that is strong, durable, and prepared to chase dreams.
Jessica is a 2019 graduate of Old Saybrook (CT) High School and a sophomore at the University of Delaware. This is the second of a five-part series dealing with the role athletes, coaches, teammates and families have in prioritizing the health of female runners, along with understanding the social and environmental dichotomies that impact how young athletes should balance their well being. Jessica was a multiple-time CIAC State Open and CIAC Class Class S Championship qualifier and placer, and held PRs of 2:22.78 in the 800m and 5:07.42 in the 1,600m.