Women Runners are NOT “too weak and fragile”

Women have heard that they are too weak, delicate, fragile and too old to run. Many women runners have been harassed and attacked while running. But the health benefits of running for women are undeniable. Women need to persevere and continue to run. We need to keep showing the world that women runners are strong and fierce.

I was asked to give a talk to some runners just learning to run.  The group is all women, so the topic was to be running and women’s issues.  That is a huge topic.  But I was up for the challenge.  To help me narrow it down, I decided to write this blog article.  Writing has always helped me organize my thoughts, and many of my readers are women.  So, let’s explore issues for women who run. 

Katherine Switzer is a hero

Her coach told her that women were “too weak and fragile” to run marathons, but Katherine Switzer ignored him and ran the Boston Marathon anyways.  That was in 1967,  the year I was born. 

She was the first woman to ever run Boston.  She entered the race as K. V. Switzer and ran with bib 261.  When race official, Jock Semple, discovered a woman running, he tried to remove her from the race.  He grabbed at her bib, yelling “Get the hell out of my race…”.  She was never more determined to finish the race after that incident. 

The fiasco was caught on film.  I have watched this video repeatedly.  Her boyfriend shoved Jock Semple off to the side and told Katherine to keep running.  And run, she did. Katherine Switzer is truly a hero.  She proved that women can run marathons. She paved the way for the rest of us to run. 

And then women were accepted into running events

Five years later, in 1972, the Boston Marathon officially opened the race to women.  The first women’s Olympic marathon wasn’t held until the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, California.  But we were finally accepted into the sport of running, and we haven’t looked back since. Women participating in footraces has grown exponentially ever since.

In 2018, female runners surpassed men in race participation numbers.  Data collected show 50.24% were women that year.  For the 5 km distance the difference is even more marked, with 60% women participating in these races.  

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So, of course we are not too weak or fragile to run.  We are strong and fierce runners. 

But we do have some unique issues when running.  Let’s talk about those…

Safety

“We can’t let fear stop us from doing what we love”

– Kellyn Taylor –

Unfortunately, it is no secret that women get harassed and attacked on runs.  In Issue 6 2019 of Runner’s World Magazine it says that 84% of women runners have been harassed, assaulted or even murdered while running.

But don’t let the statistics stop you.  Many women runners run safely. The majority of threats on runs are harassment. Find ways to run safely and choose your routes well.  I run with a whistle and I avoid routes that are sketchy or where I have had issues previously. I have been harassed on runs, myself, so I know how scary it can be when you don’t know what the other person is going to do. The key is to be aware and avoid those situations that make you uncomfortable. Trust your gut.

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If you travel, know the emergency numbers for the local police. These numbers can be different depending on which country you are traveling to. For example, North America it is 911, but for most of Europe it is 112. Also, ask local runners what routes they run and which routes to avoid. You could also ask at your hotel’s front desk. I have done this before.

Menstruation

Yes, you can run when you have your period.  If you have cramps or heavy bleeding, you may not want to.  But it is perfectly safe. Running may even help you out, if you can get through the first few minutes. 

Running can decrease the pain of menstrual cramps.  Speed work and hill training seem to be most effective at achieving this. 

When you are on your period, it isn’t the worst time for running.  About a week before, when your progesterone hormone peaks, you may find running harder.  This hormone causes your body temperature set point to go up.  So if it is a hot day, you can’t cool down as effectively.  You will breath heavier during this time and your heart will have to work harder.  So, just slow down a bit if it feels hard.  Go easy on yourself during this time. 

If you bleed a lot during your period, talk to your doctor about taking an iron supplement.  If you do a lot of running, you may have low hemoglobin levels (athletic anemia).  Iron is a component of hemoglobin, so can help you make more.  Hemoglobin is the molecule that carries oxygen to your hard-working muscles.  So, it is important to make sure your iron and hemoglobin levels are within normal range. 

Pregnancy

Many runners run through pregnancy.  It is perfectly safe to run during first and second trimester if you are healthy.  There are some things to consider during the third trimester.  However, many runners continue to run through their whole pregnancy.  It is possible with some precautions

Stop treating pregnancy like an injury

– Alysia Montano, US Olympian runner –

Avoid overheating

There is a risk to the baby if your core body temperature goes over 100 oF.  So, you may not want to run on very hot and humid days.  And avoid hot tubs or saunas after your run.  Be sure to stay hydrated, slow down and cool yourself off if you feel hot during your run. 

Relaxin, don’t do it

Okay, Frankie says Relax, not Relaxin.  And now you have that song stuck in your head, right?  You’re welcome!

Our bodies start to produce the hormone relaxin during the last trimester.  This hormone is preparing the body for labor and delivery, by relaxing pelvis ligaments and cartilage.  But it can relax other muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the body too.  This can lead to a different gate and possibly injury.  Some women also find they are more sore after a run during this time. 

On your doctors advice, you can still run in your third trimester. But, slow your run down to an easier pace and no crazy distances.  And don’t start running during the last trimester. No point in starting up now. Wait until after delivery.  

Jogging strollers allow you to take baby running with you.

Breast Feeding

Running does not alter the nutrients in breast milk, and it will not lessen the supply of milk.  These are both myths. 

Our bodies produce lactic acid when we run intensely, to exhaustion.  The acid can get into breast milk.  While it is safe for baby to drink, they may not like the taste.  It may give the milk a sour flavor.  They may not like the salt that forms from your sweat either. 

So, breast feed before an intense run or pump a bottle for afterwards.  The sour taste will only last for about 90 minutes after intense exercise.  It isn’t an excuse not to run, you just need to do a bit more planning, that’s all. 

Research shows that easier runs do not affect the flavor of breast milk in any way. Babies will happily nurse immediately after lighter exercise. It seems to only be intense exercise that may alter the flavor. So, you could just slow it down or run shorter distances.  That works too. 

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Speaking of Breasts

Buy a supportive sports bra

When you are looking for a good sports bra, look for one that is stretchy horizontally, but not vertically. It should be snug, but not too tight and compressive. Make sure the fabric is quick dry and sweat-wicking. Jump up and down or run on the spot while you are in the change room to see if it holds the girls in place adequately. A bra that isn’t supportive enough may make you sore after a run. If it doesn’t fit well, it may cause chaffing. No one wants that.

Running reduces risk for breast cancer

Did you know that women runners have a reduced risk for breast cancer?  If you run regularly, your body will produce a less potent form of estrogen.  This cuts your risk for breast and uterine cancer in half.  Cool, right!  So, go run! 

Menopause

Hot flashes, weight gain, insomnia, oh my!  Isn’t menopause so much fun? Not! 

My menopause was chemically induced because I had breast cancer.  The doctors wanted to suppress my estrogen as quickly as they could.  Being 46 at the time, I was just entering the beginning phase of menopause.  But, I wasn’t allowed the luxury of entering it slowly and easily, if there even is such a thing.  I was given injections of hormone that plummeted me right smack into this hot hell.  I could not control my body temperature at all.  Sweaters would go on, and sweaters would get ripped off.  I was constantly dressing and undressing.  I ended up investing in a bunch of pretty t-shirts and cardigans, which has become my entire wardrobe now. 

But running was my savior in all this.  Running tempered my hot flashes and made them somewhat tolerable.  Occasionally I would have a hot flash during a run that made me pant and not be able to catch my breath.  They didn’t last long and I would just slow down or walk through them. 

Research shows that running helps ease menopausal symptoms

Now, most women go through a more gradual menopause that can last years.  But running can still help ease symptoms.  Some studies have shown that higher intensity exercise, like running, can help reduce the severity of most menopausal symptoms. 

Now if you run before menopause hits, you may get frustrated with yourself during this phase of your life.  Studies have also shown that our ability to workout suffers.  So, don’t fret if you are struggling on your runs.  This too shall pass and you will be up to running like the wind when your hormones settle down. 

But whatever you do, don’t stop running.  Studies also show that fitness doesn’t drop as drastically in those that do sprint interval training or high intensity interval training during menopause. 

Osteoporosis

A friend of mine started running at age 50.  When she started taking the class I was helping to teach, she was told by a coworker that she was too old to start running.  This is a common myth.  I have heard this before.  I started running at age 46 and people told me the same thing.  But the opposite is true.  Women over 50 should be running.  And preventing osteoporosis and broken bones is one of the primary reasons older women should be running. 

Decreasing estrogen means lower calcium and vitamin D levels

Along with menopause, also comes the risk of osteoporosis.  It seems that during menopause, the rate at which we excrete calcium, mainly through urine, is increased and our ability to absorb vitamin D decreases. 

Additionally, the reduced estrogen in our bodies means that our bones will start reabsorbing calcium at faster rates.  Estrogen tells our osteoclasts (cells that eat bone) to settle down.  Without a lot of estrogen around, those osteoclast cells act like little pacmen and start stripping our bones down.

This is all really bad news and can lead to the weakening of bones and affect our muscle performance.  It can also lead to bone fractures.  The International Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that 1 in 3 women over the age of 50 will experience a bone fracture. Those are scary odds.

Running helps prevent osteoporosis

However, the good news is that numerous studies show that the vibrations from our feet hitting the pavement during running helps preserve and strengthen our bones.  And this is especially true in post-menopausal women. 

Women runners preserve muscle strength and balance as we age.  Improved strength of postural muscles and better balance further help prevent fractures from falling. 

So, really what I am trying to say here is….
Women over 50 should really be running regularly.
Running at any age is beneficial.

Women runners are some of the strongest people!

Take for example, Catra Corbett. She was able to crawl up out of drug addiction to go on and run ultramarathons. Catra has finished over 100 ultramarathons all over the globe. She now promotes healthy living and running on her website.

And then there is Joan Benoit, who was the first ever woman’s Olympic marathon gold medalist. She ran those 26.2 miles in 2:24:52 to make the podium. She is still running marathons at age 62, having ran a 3:02 in the 2019 Berlin Marathon.

Pam Reed beat all her female and male competition to win the “Toughest Foot Race on Earth”. She placed first overall in the 2002 Badwater Ultramarathon, which is a 135 mile ultramarathon. This was done in a world where women don’t usually beat their fellow male runners in footraces. Men are generally faster. An amazing accomplishment!

And let me end with just one more, among so many others. Alysia Montano ran the US Track and Field Championship 800 meter race in 2014 while 34 weeks pregnant. While she ran 35 seconds slower than her personal best, she managed to rally the crowd’s loudest cheers. She went up against Nike, telling them to “stop treating pregnancy like an injury”, for their athletic sponsorship policies. Alysia teaches all women runners that we are capable.

We are definitely not too weak and fragile to run.
We are strong, fierce and badass.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out the Pink Ribbon Runner Archives for more great running posts!

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