The Female Runner

For more than 40 years, the running world has treated women athletes as soft and petite versions of men! Coaching, sports, physiology research, athletic apparel – even the ways competitive events are organised – have proceeded unwaveringly from the assumption that all runners stand up when they pee! But this scientific evidence just in: You’re not a man! 

Your foot strike is different. In fact, your feet are different. so is the geometry of your legs and knees and hips (as if nobody noticed). You heal from sports injuries in ways we’re only beginning to understand. You metabolise food differently. Yet here we are, deep in the new millennium – with Paula Radcliffe and Deena Kastor and women’s world records toppling everywhere – still stuck in the male idea of what running should be.

The glacial pace of change is depressing, but not surprisingly, inroads are coming first from academia. Take knee injuries, especially the dreaded ACL tears, which afflict women runners far more commonly than men. Why? The distance between a woman’s knees and feet is shorter than a man’s, her ankles are more flexed, and her feet roll outward more. This affects foot strike. Men suffer the same problem when they’re fatigued, but women begin with the disadvantage! The takeaway is that women must be more vigilant about fatigue. When it’s time to stop, stop.

Likewise, sports physiologists have known for years that protein aids recovery after a hard workout, at least for those who think a college beer-can collection is a work of art! Women have rarely been invited into such studies. Finally, we’re discovering that protein doesn’t have the same benefit for females. On the other hand, estrogen offers a superior and still-mysterious protection for muscles after the wear and tear of a hard workout. Women recover more quickly from long runs, no need for a self-congratulatory steak dinner!

Carbo-loading, sacrosanct to marathoners, delivers less benefit to women than to men. It’s the best insurance against bonking on any long run for both sexes, but females should bring greater strategy to refuelling along the way. Meanwhile, women can take satisfaction that their bodies switch into fat-burning (calorie burning) mode more quickly than the opposite sex. You’ll work off your butt faster than he’ll work off his gut!

Apparel makers have been more attentive to women runners, thanks to the vast profits that have blossomed from the running boom. Shoemakers now deftly understand the unique architecture of the female foot – offering more flexible midsoles, wider foot beds, and thinner heels. Bra makers have been slower to innovate. Many women aren’t keenly thrilled with the fit of bras that wear to work, never mind the sports variety! Today’s running bras certainly improve on the early 1970s, in which two jockstraps stitched together promised all the support a women could want! Even so, they haven’t come a long way, but are heading in the right direction.


Martin McKone