It’s Time To Ditch These Myths About The Female Running Body
Let’s get one thing straight: Women and men are biologically different, but that doesn’t mean that women are biologically inferior.
Women have been conditioned to believe that their bodies aren’t adequate for various biological reasons, including hormones, body shape, body structure, and body size. This belief – that a woman’s body can’t support her – is subtle and pervasive in our culture. It holds female runners back and keeps them from thriving in their bodies athletically.
This type of negative messaging about a female runner’s body can be devastating to her performance. It implies that there is something “wrong” with her body, and that there is a permanence to her “flaw” that will result in a lifetime of pain and injury.
It’s wrong, disempowering, and can be harmful to a female runner’s experience. From my experience as a physical therapist, here are three myths that female runners hear about their bodies that are due for debunking.
Myth #1: Hip width is what causes knee pain.
At their widest point, women do tend to have a wider pelvis than men. But when looking at structural differences in bone anatomy, it turns out that the differences aren’t so great, and that women’s bodies are well-adapted to them.
The long-held belief has been that wider hips result in a greater angle of the pelvis relative to the knee. It’s said that this greater angle can lead to more knee pain in female runners.
This belief is wrong in two ways. First, these angles have been shown to be similar between men and women of similar sizes. Second, research has clearly demonstrated that these angles pose little to no risk of injury in runners.
The problem with this myth in our culture is that it implies a woman’s biology is an evolutionary flaw. I’m here to put it in writing: Your evolutionary biology isn’t a flaw.
So what about women (and men!) who have knee pain with running?
The first step that I take with clients is to help them believe that they’ll adapt, no matter their shape, size, structure, or sex. I know this isn’t a quick-fix way to tackle this problem, but I also know that it’s key to engendering a certain level of confidence in yourself as an athlete.
In this case, that means if women are born with wider hips, you better believe that we were born with the evolutionary prowess to run with those hips and be just fine.
Myth #2: Female runners are quad-dominant, which is why they have knee pain.
Time and time again, when I watch a female runner perform a squat in my office, she will work as hard possible to keep her knees from moving over her toes. When I ask why she squats this way, she’ll say, “Because so-and-so told me I was quad-dominant and that I need more glute strength.”
This belief is based on the presumption that if you sit your hips back far enough, your glutes will fire more and there won’t be as much “activation” of your quadriceps muscles.
The irony in this is that quadriceps weakness has been shown to be a potential predictor of knee pain in runners. It’s plausible that, by avoiding the use of your quadriceps muscles, you’re perpetuating your difficulties with running.
Two of the best treatments for knee pain in runners are hip and knee strengthening. Here are two exercises I recommend to runners that target the hip and knee.
Banded Lateral Toe Tap
– Start standing with a band around your ankles in a “ready” stance, with knees slightly bent, hands clasped in front of you.
– Shift weight to left leg, and step right foot out to the right on a diagonal behind you while keeping all your weight on the left leg.
– Complete 10 to 12 reps then repeat with right leg.
Single-Leg Step Down
– Stand with left foot on the edge of a bench or box while right foots hangs off.
– Send hips back and bend left knee to squat down on the left leg without transferring your weight to the floor.
– Press back up to stand as you draw right knee to chest in a runner’s march.
– Complete 10 to 12 reps then repeat on other side.
Myth #3: Having a baby causes women to have unstable joints and puts them at greater risk of injury.
There’s no denying that being able to have a baby is a major physical and biological difference between women and men. What we can deny, though, is that pregnancy endangers you because of hormonal and biological changes inside your body.
The gift of carrying, delivering, and nurturing a baby doesn’t mean that you are destined for pain and injury as a runner. In fact, one study found that, among competitive female runners, there was little perceived impact to running while breastfeeding.
To take just one recent example, runner Malindi Elmore ran 2:32 in her debut marathon, just seven months after giving birth.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding cause the release of a hormone called relaxin; this is a normal, non-dangerous process. Blaming the hormonal changes for a woman’s experience of pain or injury is harmful to her perception of herself and her situation. After all, if pregnant and post-partum women should stop running because of hormonal changes, then by that standard we should tell girls not to exercise through puberty, we should tell middle-aged women to stop exercising during ovulation, and we should tell older women to stop exercising during menopause. It’s nonsensical. As with the first two myths above, the idea that having a baby causes fragility can lead a woman down a path towards feeling helpless in her own body.
This myth stems from the idea that having a baby causes fragility in a woman’s body. Myths like this, can keep women from running, which can cause major issues to her identity as a runner, as well as to her health.
Of course female runners get injured. The keys to them combating injury are the same for all runners, woman or man: incorporating progressive strength training; staying consistent in your training practices; prioritising recovery; and seeking help from a person you trust.
Remember: You will adapt. Biological and structural differences from a man aren’t indicative of your potential.
Images by Julia Hembree Smith.