The Dangers of Being a Long Distance Female Runner in the U.S

Some girls eat carrots, cucumbers, and maybe an apple for lunch -- god forbid they eat a cookie. They enumerate every calorie they intake and would never dare pass the limit. But a mindset such as this concerns me; this fixation on being "fit" bleeds into unhealthiness. This pressure burdens various females, but this is especially the case with female long-distance runners.

The University of Oregon has a well-known track team. However, it was reported that six female athletes quit the team because they feared not being able to reach/maintain the body fat percentage to appease their coach's standard. However, this pressure hid "under a veil of science," according to Jane Coastan, a New York Times writer. The team used a scan called the DEXA, which measures bone density along with fat percentages. The girls that left cited how the coaches constructed an atmosphere where they bullied their runners into believing that the only way to succeed was to have a low DEXA scan, and you were looked down upon if your DEXA scan increased. So the girls lived in fear of being ridiculed. The coaches said how they used the DEXA metric along with other stats because competitive running is all about statistics, and they justified their mistreatment of the girls by the fact that they wanted them to succeed. Even if that was true, running isn't about coaching robots; it's about developing humans' physical and mental capacity. This fear of being "fat" was exacerbated by girls' need to meet unrealistic societal standards regarding health.

The American Council on Exercise says how runners should aim for DEXA showing 14-20%. However, when one female runner said her DEXA was 16%, a nutritionist from Oregon University "told her to lower it to 13%". Why would this nutritionist ignore that a healthy body needs proper fuel? It should not be the goal to be the skinniest on the team. Yes, runners with lower body weight and less fat percentage generally perform better but depleting fuel through healthy food sources is absurd and inhumane.

Jane Coastan wrote to Meghann Featherstone, a dietitian who works with endurance athletes, asking if "low body fat percentages would ever be appropriate for women in endurance sports." She sent an email back, writing "NO," in all caps. She explained how low body fat percentages could lead to amenorrhea and very late menstrual periods. One athlete whose DEXA was 16% reported how she hadn't had her period in over a year. Feathsun says how, "if runners are creating an energy deficit, leading to low energy availability, their performance will suffer." Furthermore, other health defects may ensue from this calorie deficit, such as relative energy deficiency in sport (REDS), defined as a result of "insufficient caloric intake and excess energy expenditure," according to Runner's World. REDS is known to affect bone health, decrease immunity, decrease protein synthesis, and cardiovascular health -- these are all components of a stair runner.

Athletes deserve coaches who want what's best for the whole athlete, and this issue needed to be surfaced. However, this pressure is a microcosm of the burden female teenagers may feel when the world is constantly telling them to be fit.

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