Hello again TeenRunner readers!
I said at the end of my last piece that I would update you on how I went at the Oceania Athletics Championships, so before I get into my main article; I won the 3000m, took second place in the 2000m steeplechase and placed 4th in the 1500m for U18 women. It was an incredible experience representing New Zealand as part of such a big team, as well as traveling to and staying in Fiji! My times weren’t amazing, but considering the heat and circumstances I was happy with my performances and enjoyed the whole event.
So now that’s out of the way… onto my second post
I love running. Anyone who knows me knows that. But me and running are going to need to keep our distance for a few months, because right now running doesn’t love me back.
I will not be running for the next three months, a time period which seems unreasonably long and scary to me, but I know it is justified and I trust the medical professionals who have advised me that this is the best thing I can do for myself and my future.
So… What’s wrong with me?
After two, almost three years of training and competing, my body has decided that it needs a little break. My estrogen levels are low, and if left at their current state they could negatively impact my well being in the long term. Many girls are unaware of how low hormones can affect your ability to maintain or gain bone density and also be detrimental for mental health, and it is easy to ignore the problem because it doesn’t cause visible symptoms which people typically associate with being unhealthy.
It’s going to be hard, but I can make this time off worth it if I make the most of this opportunity to grow and develop into a stronger, more well rounded athlete. If I take a pessimistic attitude and focus on what I might lose, I will be guaranteeing that it will be a detrimental experience. So instead I am going to be utilising all the resources and experts I am lucky enough to have around me to ensure I get the most out of this circumstance. I especially benefit from the fact that my coach is supportive of my break and that I have my club, friends and family behind me.
I am disappointed with the fact that my break will cause me to miss out on the opportunity to represent my country at the Australian Cross Country Champs, something I really enjoyed last year, but other than this event the timing for this seems right. Hopefully I will be returning to competing by track season in December, but if that isn’t possible then I still have plenty of time to get ready for next year!
Having to take this break has made me reflect on the fact that fitness does not always equal health, and I encourage all female athletes to do the same. Test your iron and hormone levels regularly, and listen to what your body tells you. Your long term well being should come before instant results, and resting more now could ensure that you have a happier future in sport.
I am sharing my story because I think the silence that surrounds illness amongst female athletes is potentially dangerous. The taboo around “women’s issues” has caused a real culture of secrecy which prevents the effective sharing of resources that could cure some of these “issues”. We are doing a huge disservice to young girls everywhere who have dreams of becoming sportspeople by not supplying them with the most up to date information and support that they need to navigate the minefield that comes with striving for peak physical performance. The majority of information available around healthy eating involves an emphasis on losing weight, and searching for inspiration on the internet often turns up quotes about working harder, for longer, and never ever ever giving up. While some people might find these kind of things motivating and helpful, constant bombardment of these messages along with the internal pressure most athletes already have is not conducive to a generation of happy, healthy athletes.
Too often I think that girls are being told, not so much in words but in the messages they absorb, to put their performance ahead of their happiness and lifelong well being. When you grow up in a sport like cross country, where people feel entitled to comment on other girl’s bodies and performance, it’s hard not to take that to heart. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been discussing other female teen athletes and someone has brought out the classic “just wait a few years…” line. The implication is obvious; Yes, she’s great now, but she’ll probably grow up and slow down. As long as you don’t do that, you’ll be faster than her one day. All this kind of talk does is tell young athletes that anything that makes you more of a woman will ruin your performance and athleticism.
But in reality, an absence of these things only makes you less healthy, less strong and can have lifelong repercussions. Yes, 14 or 15 year old girls often run faster than their 18 year old counterparts, but it’s not like the world’s fastest tweens are quicker than elite, 20 and 30 year old women. In most cases I would say that those athletes who make it all the way are the ones who listened to their body, looked after themselves and have ridden the ups and downs of being a developing athlete.
One of the most dangerous myths in sport is that the harder you work, the faster you get. As someone who is prepared to put in my best effort to achieve my goals, this is what attracted me to running in the first place, and for sure it is true… for about three months. When I first started training, I made 30 second improvements regularly, but in the three years since then I have had to adjust to my gains coming in smaller increments. This is because you eventually reach a threshold where you are maximising what your body is capable of at the time, and once you do, no matter what, you are only going to see very small improvements. But it’s hard to accept this, and instead of riding the wave of performances many people, myself included, turn to becoming obsessed with how they can work harder and do more in order to get better. And the ironic thing is once you are at the height of this mindset you reach the dreaded tipping point. Your body gives in, and the energy deficit take its toll.
When athletes fail to perform to expected standards or improve at an exponential rate, we shouldn’t hold them personally accountable or define them by their results alone. Places and PBs do not reflect the attitude and work ethic of those who obtain them, and don’t take into account the improvements, obstacles or experiences the athlete has faced along the way.
Another issue facing female teen athletes is how male dominated most sports are. Training along side boys, with no similar aged girls to relate to, it can be easy to feel disillusioned. As they grow up, they become faster. Their bodies get more efficient and stronger due to the performance enhancing hormone testosterone being introduced into the equation. Meanwhile, female athletes often have to watch the gap between them and their male counterparts get bigger and bigger. It’s important to recognise the physiological differences between growing boys and girls, and not hold them to identical standards when the changes they go through are in many ways unique.
All of this might sound quite negative, but there are plenty of things that we as athletes, coaches, and parents can do to create a positive environment in our sport. By opening up the discussion around the ups and downs of being an athlete, I believe we can greatly reduce the number of young boys and girls negatively impacting their health in pursuit of success.
So, in an effort to improve my own health I am beginning my own #norunstreak. It’s going to take some time to adjust and it’s going to be a struggle to make such a huge change to my routine. I’ll be upping my food intake, cutting out all running training and instead focus on strength and conditioning which will help me improve my form and efficiency when I do return to competition. This time will also be a chance for me to focus more on other things, like school work and my friends, and find more of my identity outside of athletics. Whilst this break might be uncomfortable for me now, I know when I look back on this in the future as a stronger, happier person it will all have been worth it.
If you are looking for any more information here are some resources that I have found helpful (if anyone has their own stories of taking a break or any other resources they would recommend I would love to hear from you!):
http://tinamuir.com/ -is full of great advice and stories from Tina Muir, which are good reads for all athletes.
http://www.bellelap.com/ -has some interesting articles from a range of runners
https://www.acaseofthejills.com/ -Youtube videos you need to watch!
Wow. There’s not really much for me to say except that I’m hugely inspired by Tessa’s words and also really grateful for this guest post. I urge any readers to share this with those around them, and would like to say thank you to Tessa on the behalf of everyone for writing her two-part series.
You can read her first article here: Life as a Runner in New Zealand