Elements of Cross Country – Part Two: Growing Athletes

There is perhaps no issue or perception that is as harmful to athlete (in particular with young girls, but the issue extends into young boys as well) that maturing bodies is harmful to athletic prowess. For part two of our series on the elements of cross country training, we're taking our time to focus on that. We asked experts about growing issues in athletics and the sociology often related to them. Here is what they said:

Lauren Fleshman wears many hats in our sport. She was a 2 x US Champion in the 5000 meter run; 5 x NCAA Champion; 15 X All-American; she is a former coach; was a World Cross Country medalist; and wrote Dear Younger Me which received high reviews! 

I have to note that of course sociology and biology are both involved in these topics. My degree was in Human Biology with an area of concentration in Women's health and athletic performance. It is a silly question to pose as and either or.

We do not need to feel bad for girls for going through a totally natural biological process that is 100% necessary for them to reach their ultimate potential athletically and as human beings. We need to change the way we are telling this story. A woman runner's athletic peak is in her late 20's to early 30's, and she simply cannot get there unless she goes through puberty, which often involves a temporary plateau or slowing down.

Biology is not the problem. The problem is in how we handle this socially. The mistake we make is in comparing the female athlete development experience against a male "norm." We need to put our effort into understanding the female norm, and celebrating it. We need to educate coaches and parents and athletes, male and female, of the female experience with no sad faces attached to it.

We need to stop scaring girls about a totally natural process that is not only necessary for them to be their ultimate best athlete but to be a healthy human being, regardless of whether or not they choose to use their woman body to make babies. The woman body is framed as beneficial for childbearing that unfortunately gets in the way of sports. This is absolute garbage. The women dominating our sport are grown women. In women's bodies.

This is not gymnastics where the world's best are teenagers. If a girl sticks with sports through development and continues to maintain an athletic mindset, the best is yet to come. It is important to develop female athletes in a holistic way. Even when an athlete is experiencing a period of decreased performance, they can be improving in other ways that will serve them now and later. They can learn about sports nutrition, and strength and conditioning, and finely tune race tactics, become better at pacing themselves, and to continue as a student of the sport. All of these skills will serve them regardless of PR's.

When they adjust to their changing body, these will be skills that will contribute to the return of PR's. The woman body is a body that is strong as hell, powerful, and capable of far more than their girl body. They just have to get there, through some challenges, and anyone at the top of their game in any industry will tell you that the challenges are what develops the champion. 

My high school had a healthy environment where it was safe to go through puberty, and there was very little angst between the older girls and younger girls. The reason is because of the coaching staff. What does a coach reward? If everything is about being the fastest, if the fastest get all the recognition and reward, angst is bound to happen.

If you are going to coach young women at a time of their life when they will go through puberty, it is your responsibility to create a culture of positivity that celebrates more than the fastest girls. It is imperative. My coach, Dave DeLong at Canyon High School, did a brilliant job of defining success in a way congruent with female biology.

He created a social environment where leadership was valued as much as speed. Where the "athlete of the week" was more often someone who had a great attitude at practice than someone who got a PR. Coaches teach us what is valued. When you leave space in your program to celebrate the complete athlete through development, a girl can still be honored for her contributions if she slows down. She can be respected and looked up to by the younger athletes, even if they are faster. And this shows the young girls that puberty is safe. That they will still be valued. Coaches can provide the big picture perspective, and they must. If you aren't willing to do this, you should get out of coaching girls. 

As a female coach, most of the time I feel respected. Times are changing. It's a great time to be getting into coaching as a woman. And that is mostly due to increased representation. We need to see it to be it, and that goes for men and women both. When I saw Jenny Simpson win gold in the 1500 at Worlds and saw that she was coached by a woman, Julie Henner, it shifted my view of what was possible for women coaches.

When Wayde van Niekerk broke the world record in the 400, his coach Ans Botha, a 74 year old woman, was given visibility to viewers. This again opened my eyes to the possibilities for women, but also of how late in life one can continue to coach at a world class level, male or female. When she was denied access to the athlete area like other coaches because she didn't look "like a coach" that showed how far we still have to go. Basically, visibility is important for whatever group is underrepresented. 

I think that while it is great to talk about the things that female athletes face, I think there are issues boys face that get overlooked when we set the men's version of sport as the example, the norm, to which we compare the girls side. Men have three-times the rate of suicide as women. Men are more likely to isolate themselves when struggling, and suffer from the effects of toxic masculinity. Being a man often involves a narrow set of behaviors that are "acceptable," and sensitivity and talking about feelings is often discouraged.

How many male runners end up injured because they feel like they need to tough through pain? How many boys over train because they are scared of being perceived as weak? How many boys make dumb decisions because they don't want to hear the ultimate put down, which is a word for female anatomy, which certainly doesn't help with any of this equality business.

There is plenty of research that shows how important community, talking about feelings, and deep relationships are to good health. Also, the latest research on RED-S shows that boys and girls are both effected, and that boys have been silent victims thanks to our insistence on making eating disorders a women's issue for so long. Equality isn't just about girls getting the things boys have. It is also about removing the restraints we've put on men's social and emotional development for the sake of a limited view of "being men."

Which by the way, I must point out that a lot of what defines being a man is described as not being "like a woman." Both men and women deserve the opportunity to be strong and sensitive in the ways that are natural for them without having things socialized out of them. They would be more likely to reach their potential as athletes and humans. The bigger the picture, the better are world would be. We need to work together to help people.


From Scott Christensen of Stillwater Area High School who has had five state cross country team championships and five state track & field championships:

You are right about 7th, 8th and 9th grade girls typically being much more competitive than males of the same age. There are well documented growth and development issues that account for this phenomenon. On the other hand, I have never seen young girls run distance races in the Olympics either. Women, not kids, run in the Olympics, so many, many girls must get progressively better at distance running as they pass through puberty and grow into women. The problem is only sociological because all involved make it the way it should not be. They use it as an excuse for stagnant development.

Some young girls have well-developed VO2 max systems for their body size - large hearts, greater blood volume, prolific capillarization, huge oxygen carrying capacity. Small bodies, large engines. Most of them train the same way by just going out and running mileage. They are good at it, and most athletes, if allowed to, will train at what they are already good at. These young small bodies win races with very simple aerobic training, and they believe it will always be that way.

However, biologically things change. A body matures. The VO2 max value stays the same because the training stimulus never changes, but the body changes and adds 20 pounds. Same size engine, bigger car, so running economy starts to be less efficient. Often times, they continue to train the only way they ever have, that is with almost all simple steady state aerobic stimuli that they have always used. With worsened running economy, their performance slips and people (themselves, their coaches, their parents) panic.

The wise coach will prescribe a different form of aerobic stimulus like frequent hard lactate threshold running and dump the general miles that have always worked. The wise coach will bring in lots of anaerobic stimulus to develop that underdeveloped energy system and let that energy system take more of the race energy producing chore. The wise coach will add lots of plyometrics, max speed work like 30 meter flys, and resistance work like deadlifts to stiffen the ligementous joint tissues and increase the cross sectional diameter of the muscle fibers in the parts off the body that are responsible for running.

Instead, coaches usually simply blame the girl "going through changes." But look at the 22 teams at Nike Cross Nationals every year - most of the girls that run there are juniors and seniors. Many of the same schools like Wayzata, Fayetteville-Manilus, and Saratoga Springs all return to NXN often with juniors and seniors. Those wise coaches have figured it out, while other average coaches have abandoned their younger and now older good female runners simply for getting bigger and then make excuses with no validation like "she got bigger, we all know what happens." Ridiculous. 

Boys can go through the very same issues, they are just two years behind the girls. The wise coach will train boys with stagnant development by using the same strategy outlined above. It is not a gender issue and never has been. It is a growth and development issue. I always put few performance expectations on our 9th and 10th grade boys in meets and in very hard practices. We want them to learn how to practice correctly and with passion, and not just try to accomplish monster workouts. Their day will come, and they need to be ready for it emotionally. Over-racing both young boys and girls is a big problem in track and cross country. It resembles AAU basketball or youth soccer. Coaches struggle for creative practice ideas that give athletes happiness so they schedule lots of races or games so they do not have to think about sensational, sequential practice periodization.