A Cautionary Tale
More than 25 years ago, I offered a commentary on the subject of young children running long distances [TC #23]. The gist of that entry was that kids – those younger than 16 – should not only not be pushed or encouraged to run very long distances, such as marathons; they should not be allowed to make that decision for themselves by parents or coaches.
A new controversy is now currently making national headlines that have raised serious concerns for the welfare and health of adolescent girls and young women who participate in competitive distance running.
Mary Cain was one of the top women middle-distance runners in America for much of the past decade. By the age of 17, she had become a record-setting middle-distance runner, prompting famed runner and coach Alberto Salazar, the head of Nike’s Oregon Project, to recruit her for his team. It appeared her career was destined to continue to rise to world-class success.
But in a video published online last week by the NY Times, Cain described a much more disturbing account of her time with the Oregon Project. She alleges that Salazar and other coaches harassed and pressured her continuously to lose weight, believing this to be crucial for her be successful on the track. As a result of her subsequent weight-loss, Cain claims to have suffered significant, deleterious physical decline; this included a cessation of her periods, which led to the development of osteoporosis. Because of this, she sustained five stress fractures during her training. She began cutting herself and had thoughts of suicide, but even after bringing this to her coaches’ attention, received no nutritional or psychological counseling.
Cain’s account has been supported and supplemented by accounts of other athletes, including Olympians Kara Goucher and Lauren Fleshman. Both reported being forced to “weigh-in” before other athletes and were ridiculed by coaches if they did not “make weight.” Fleshman relates how Salazar would make disparaging comments about her physical appearance.
This is a brief summary of what appears to be a snowballing story. More revelations may be forthcoming, and I would like to believe that these accounts about the Oregon Project (which Nike has disbanded, in part as a result of these allegations, but also because of Salazar’s alleged involvement in coercing athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs) are an isolated case, but I am not able to because I have seen instances of this problem in our area.
To be clear – I have no first or even second-hand knowledge or examples of any local coach behaving in a manner such as that alleged about Salazar and his assistants. I can, however, cite several examples of high school and college-age female runners who exhibited signs and symptoms of self-inflicted eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, as well as seeing cases of stress fractures that may well have been related to said disorders.
These athletes may very well have not experienced any pressure from a coach to reach and/or maintain a certain weight; I think the problem is a much broader one in our society, which seems to value thinness highly. Many teenage girls become very influenced by this message, transmitted by movies, TV, social media and, certainly, peer pressure.
We also have to accept the fact that most female distance runners tend to be of a certain body type – narrow hips and petite frame primarily – which is part of what makes them elite runners, just as elite male swimmers exhibit broad, flexible shoulders, long legs, and large feet. Training may accentuate these traits to some degree, but most top athletes in any given sport tend to be of a certain body type due to genetics – it’s what makes them good, to begin with.
Seeing this, I think many girls and young women come to believe they have to be as thin as possible, with minimal body fat percentage, in order to be competitive. This, combined with societal expectations, lead too many to restrict caloric intake one way or another, while at the same time attempting to maintain a high level of training. This is a recipe for a different kind of running-related injury – one that may be much more serious than typical tendinitis or muscle strain.
As in my earlier column, I am addressing these concerns to parents. Signs of an eating disorder are often difficult to recognize, especially in the early stages. But any indication that a runner has seen a reduction or cessation of her periods; is showing signs of persistent lethargy; diminishing performance; and increased incidence of illness should not be ignored. And critically, episodes of stress fracture should be medically evaluated carefully for evidence of the cause.
Most important, listen to your child/sister/friend. In my experience, young women often make offhand remarks that betray a distorted body image. Don’t dismiss those words as insignificant ramblings.