Avid runner, Gurmeet Soni Bhalla talks about how women running has changed over time since the first runner took to competing in a marathon.
Kathrine Switzer ran the first marathon in Boston disguised as a man because women were forbidden from marathon running as it was perceived to be harmful to women. It took 5 years after she ran her first race in 1967 for women to gain entry into the world of endurance running. Women since then have participated and excelled in every long distance category of running. Over the years researches have shown a woman’s anatomy to be more conducive for long distance running especially ultra-running owing to high-fat percentage which can be efficiently utilised as fuel during the endurance races.
However, there are challenges – physiological, psychological, cultural that a female athlete recreational or amateur faces during her running career. Let’s have a look at each of them and understand the challenges they pose and how to overcome them:
There is a rollercoaster of hormonal changes that a woman goes through that affects her performance on the field. The menstrual cycle of 4 to 5 days may be uncomfortable for running and racing owing to cramping, increase flow and fluid retention. Every woman runner has to take this into consideration before planning to run a race and understanding performance. The last two weeks of the cycle is the luteal phase which causes a surge of oestrogen and this causes various changes like bloating, increase in body temperature and hinders performance.
Heavy training loads during this phase can cause irregular cycle issues. It is therefore prudent to keep a cycle diary so as to plan training and races accordingly. Be more cognizant of heat stress and make an appropriate adjustment to hydration during the luteal phase. Also, heavy bleeding during menstrual cycles may lead to anaemia due to accrued iron loss so it is a good practice to keep an eye on ferritin levels and look for supplementing if found low.
Then there is a cardinal requirement of a bra that fits. In other words supportive and comfortable sports bra one that does not chafe and turn the body into a war zone after a long run and provide adequate support at different times of the month. There is nothing more crippling than warm shower stinging after a 20 miler.
Female runners are often unclear if it is safe to run during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and lactation? Yes, like all other bodily functions these are inherent to a female body and hence it is absolutely safe to run during these times. There may be special conditions that may warrant rest during times of cramps during menstrual cycles or vomiting during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Research has shown one of the reasons that participation of women in recreational and competitive sports is a measly 23% compared to males which is because of fear. Fear of being judged by others based on their appearance, fear about their ability to take part, fear of judgment for choosing to spend time on themselves rather than their families. Tackling this fear can be done by various social media campaigns showcasing women of all ages, shape and sizes enjoying various physical activities. Running groups and clubs also foster self-confidence and camaraderie that can overcome inhibitions and self-consciousness.
Safety to run during early hours/late evening can be another hindrance in women taking to running. Often there is a lack of company, place and time to pursue the sport. It may be prudent to run in a group in the dark or on lonely trail routes. Much that we would want to see women being able to run at any time and anywhere desired, a safety measure is always wise.
Female participation in sports though has come a long way but needs to overcome many social and cultural barriers. Studies show that parental objection, peer pressures, societal myths are some of the reasons why female participation in sports is abysmally low. The myth of a female body looking masculine prevents parents from giving consent to young girls from pursuing a career in sports.
The sports authority and coaches can play a pivotal role in overturning these barriers. Athletics can empower women, provide them with the self-confidence and make them formidable to face challenges in their lives.