Scientific research focused on female athletes lags behind that of men. Many studies fail to provide a thorough understanding of female physiology. Yet pivotal research emerges.
Dr. Stacy Sims, fellow at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and author of “Roar,” said that understanding a female athlete’s hormone cycles and tailoring training accordingly can actually make training more effective. “We need to look at women and girls as women and girls, working with their unique physiological changes to harness the performance potential,” Dr. Sims said. “How awesome would it be if every coach and every support person could talk to a girl about having a period without causing red flags?”
In spite of some correlation between puberty and performance plateaus, Dr. Sims said that adolescents can gain fitness with specific nutrition and training interventions. What’s more, holistic coaching and parenting models can combat physical and mental burnout. Tools like the FitrWoman app (“Track your period and train smarter”) can help athletes optimize performance, reduce injury and increase recovery.
Despite the persistence of an archaic paradigm, a new narrative is brewing. It says puberty is no cruel twist.
Yes, you can compete and compete well while on your period. No, uteruses don’t fall out after a hard race. Yes, it’s normal for girls (and advantageous for athletes) to change and grow during puberty. Yes, women with more internal body fat than men are exceptional athletes who set records, break barriers and persist through peaks and valleys.
Take, for example, Jordan Hasay, who won the Foot Locker national cross-country championship as a high school freshman and logged the second-fastest marathon time by an American woman with a 2:20.57 last year. And Joan Benoit Samuelson, the gold medalist of the first women’s marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics, who continues to set age-based world records in the marathon. (She ran 2:47 at 53.)
Fairchild, now 44, persisted. Shortly after she enrolled at the University of Oregon, her mother died of cancer. Fairchild took a year off to recuperate. She rested, got her period, gained strength through weight lifting and eventually running, and reassessed her goals on mountaintops around her home in Boulder, Colo.