Lauren Fleshman is one of the most decorated American distance runners of all time, brand strategy advisor for Oiselle, and co-founder of Picky Bars. She’s also a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Runner’s World, and now in her soon-to-be released book, Good for a Girl. It’s part memoir and part manifesto, calling for reform in a sports system that is failing female-bodied athletes.
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Lauren draws on her personal experiences in Good for a Girl, but the stories of other female runners motivated her to write it, as well. “One of the biggest things that makes me sad about the themes of my book is how many women are walking around with a false story of themselves, based on the things that happened to them in sport. Sport can, and should be, this massively empowering space and in many ways it is, but it’s also causing a disproportionate amount of harm to female athletes through things that can be prevented if we just understood them better.”
“I’m really struck by the amount of pain that women carry from their experiences,” she continues. “The three out of four years of college they spent injured and what they missed out on as a result of that, and without them spending much time thinking, “Hey, maybe I got all those injuries because I had unchecked amenorrhea. My program encouraged a type of leanness that was unreasonable for an 18 to 22 year old, healthy, female body and I lost my period. And nobody was monitoring it and made me think that was fine; that’s why I got injuries.”
The menstrual cycle, or lack thereof, is a crucial element of RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport), but coaches rarely address it. “We aren’t receiving this message that our period is actually super important. There’s still this misconception that the period is for reproduction; it’s for some later day, when fertility is important to us. We’re not told the truth, which is that your period is essential to you recovering from your training.”
A healthy menstrual cycle is essential to your immune system functions, and to your mental health. It shouldn’t be a sensitive subject. Lauren would like to see the culture change so that both coaches and athletes aren’t afraid to talk about it.
The sports system, as it exists today, is designed for male bodies. Coaches train their female athletes with little to no regard for their biology, which sets them up for failure. They’ll preach that “you get out what you put in” and “effort equals results,” but, Lauren observes, the reality is, “If they’re living a completely normal development curve that leads towards their ultimate potential in their twenties, there will be times where they put more effort in and they get less out than they did the year before. If you preach these things as if they’re the gold standard, that’s gaslighting your athletes. It’s telling them that if you’re not improving when you’re doing this, something is wrong with you.”
She believes that coaches need to find new ways to acknowledge females’ athletic journeys, where plateaus and dips are normal. “The real loss is when girls go through these body changes and it’s met as a tragedy, a big bummer. Or they see that happening to someone else, so that when the change starts to happen to them, they fight against it.
And once you fight against that change, you experience things that are far more emotionally difficult than a plateau year. It’s being sidelined on the bench with an injury; it’s needing to go into eating disorder recovery. It’s hijacking months or years of your life. So let’s ride out these changes; let’s have as many girls showing up to the line as they are, feeling important and enough, however that is.”
When girls sustain injuries because they’ve been fighting their own bodies, ironically, they’re encouraged to engage in the same behavior that caused them to get injured. The idea, Lauren explains, “is that a successful injury looks like you didn’t really have one at all.” And so injured athletes restrict their calories, or cross-train excessively. They’re told, “‘You won’t lose any ground if you just stay focused and disciplined enough; this can be a blip; it’ll be nothing. It’ll be like it never happened.’ And it’s just the absurdity of that. I understand the intent behind it and I don’t think people realize that it’s quite harmful. You should expect to gain some weight when you’re injured; it’s probably going to happen and it’s probably good. You don’t want your body to be in a space of having to grasp for every calorie to just heal itself, right?”
Lauren learned from Sally Kipyego that Kenyan athletes treat their bodies far differently than their American and European counterparts. They’ll take months off from training while an injury heals, or when they’re pregnant. “These are some of the fastest people in the entire world, and there’s just a cultural difference in how they view being sidelined from an injury or pregnancy. Your body’s prioritizing something else right now; have the confidence that you will make it back.”
She believes that there also needs to be a change in the way that we view the appearance of athletes’ bodies. She points to the difference between the women of the U.S. Gymnastics teams of 1996 and 2021. “There’s more body diversity possible for a female champion then we have told ourselves, or than we’ve been led to believe.” And yet, “The message continues to get preached that there’s one way to look. This is what ‘excellent,’ this is what ‘elite’ looks like, and it’s just not true. But when we see an exception to that, we view it as an exception. And we hear people say things like, ‘Oh, imagine how good she’d be if she lost some weight.’”
Most formulas used to measure athletic ability are based on research done on male bodies. 90% of studies didn’t include females. “One of the biggest things that I hope people shift their mindset in, is stop assuming that female bodies work like male bodies,” Lauren says. “Be open to the fact that we don’t really know, we really don’t know. So just look for the evidence, and when you see what you thought was an exception, maybe look at it as a new rule that a wide variety of bodies are capable of being exceptional.”
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“Thank you” to Lauren! We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.