As the sports calendars fell victim to the pandemic, athletes from Littlewing, an elite training group in Bend, Oregon, sat down to talk about running in a world without racing.
The team – a group of six athletes, including Rebecca Mehra, a miler who took third place on the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City in 2019 – had just stopped a tough workout on a dirt road in the middle of Deschutes National Forest. The women set up garden chairs on the side of the road, socially distant only from their trainer, former elite runner Lauren Fleshman, who was not initially in quarantine.
After the women settled down, Fleshman asked a few questions: what’s going on for you and who are you when there are no races, no championships, no money to be made, no performance aspect at all? Then what?
The pandemic raised the question, but the idea wasn’t new. Fleshman had asked similar questions in recent years in an attempt to change how elite women view running. If she could help athletes see themselves beyond their speed and looks – traits normally valued in female runners – she hoped they could avoid the physical and psychological dangers posed by the culture of winning at all costs that has harmed so many in the past.
“When you take a narrow view out of an athlete, the only thing left is the freedom to be yourself,” said Fleshman. “That is where the power lies.”
For example, earlier this year Fleshman helped obstacle hunter Mel Lawrence set goals for the year. Lawrence focused on napping and cross-training. Fleshman added a non-quantifiable metric: owning who you are.
“I’ve worn myself better in practice,” said Lawrence, who joined Littlewing in 2013 when the group first formed with four athletes. “It affected how hard I pushed what I put into training.”
The idea of a women-centered coaching approach arose from Fleshman’s own experience as an athlete. A top runner in Southern California high school, she won five NCAA championships in college, including three consecutive outdoor titles in the 5,000. When she turned pro, she won two national championships in the 5,000 and finished seventh in the 2011 World Championship in the 5,000, which was the highest result an American had ever achieved at that distance.
But Fleshman believes she never reached her full potential as an athlete, partly because she focused too much on height. At the beginning of her career, she compared her weight to that of the best female athletes on the World Athletics website. To be successful, she had to lose eight pounds. With restrictive eating and hard exercise, the weight decreased and she got faster. So Fleshman stayed with it.
“If the scales moved the wrong way, it would haunt me,” she said.
Health problems followed. Fleshman stopped menstruating, suffered four stress fractures and was plagued by injuries that contributed to missing opportunities, including missing the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams.
She wasn’t alone. Around her, Fleshman saw other female athletes suffering from pressure to prioritize their performance over their health. “I’ve seen it destroy lives,” she said, a harsh reality that emerged late last year when elite runner Mary Cain and other Nike coaches publicly accused Alberto Salazar of verbal abuse. This spring, female athletes at Wesleyan University described a culture of physical shame promoted by their coach, who has since retired.
To thrive, women athletes need an environment that takes their physiology into account and recognizes and counteracts the realities of sexism. “Historically, female athletes were trained as men with breasts, but male standards collide with female experience,” she explained.
Studies have shown that eating disorders affect up to 45 percent of female athletes and can lead to a relative lack of energy in exercise (RED-S), an energy deficiency caused by not eating enough for your activity level. The syndrome affects bone density, hormone levels, and other important health characteristics that put athletes at high risk of injury and psychological and emotional stress, especially in a sport like running where weight can play a role in performance.
There’s a talent leak in running, Fleshman said. Many strong athletes fall through cracks due to injuries and unsupportive training environments. She wanted Littlewing, a team of seven runners now, to be a patch on the system.
Fleshman and Dr. Sarah Lesko, MD, an elite athlete manager at Oiselle – the women-run sportswear company that sponsors Fleshman’s team – speaks almost daily about the physical, mental, and emotional health of every athlete. And while blood tests to monitor important health traits like stress hormones and red blood cells are routine, there aren’t any weighings-up or comments.
“There’s really no need to talk about weight unless there’s an unexpected swing,” Fleshman said. “In this case the dialogue would be from a health point of view.”
Irritability and mood swings can be a precursor to RED-S, so Fleshman, who has a bachelor’s degree in human biology and a master’s degree in education, often speaks to her athletes about their energy and mood.
“And periods,” said Fleshman. “I ask a lot about periods.” Amenorrhea, or lack of period, is a marker of RED-S and has been reported to affect up to 60 percent of elite middle and long distance female runners.
Fleshman saw the potential of a new coaching model for women in 2010 when she began figuring out who she was outside of athletics by co-founding Picky Bars and co-authoring a training journal. She attributes her accomplishments in 2010 and 2011 to the beginning of her life and her own education.
But it wasn’t until late 2012, when she met Lesko and Sally Bergesen, the founder and CEO of Oiselle, that Fleshman fully understood what was possible when women athletes were the focus. She signed a contract with a maternity leave clause. The contract did not include any discounts on injuries, racing odds or rankings.
“I didn’t have to convince anyone of my worth as an athlete,” Fleshman said, noting that Oiselle signed her because she knew she was pregnant with her first child. This was six years before Nike bowed to public pressure from its athletes and changed the structure of its contracts to accommodate both injuries and pregnancies.
Ultimately, Bergesen hopes Littlewing will become an established strength center for women athletes that will impact the industry.
For Fleshman, who is working on a book that highlights the need for a different coaching model for girls, success as a coach means their athletes will ultimately need them less and less. During training, she spends a lot of time logging into each athlete and making adjustments accordingly. This is a novel concept for some runners who are used to training in a suction environment.
“We state our own needs and they are accepted and heard,” said marathon runner Carrie Mack of her trainer. “That’s what is radical and empowering.”