I'm a runner who doesn't look like a runner. I am a six-foot-tall woman who has hips and broad shoulders. In fact, I look more like a basketball player or a swimmer. Yet I happen to be a pretty good runner. I regularly finish in the top 10 percent of local races, and I've even come close to winning a couple of 5Ks. I love running, and I can't imagine my life without it.
So when I read a blog post entitled "Why Most Women Shouldn't Run," in which the author wrote that only women with narrow hips and flat chests should run, I was confused, because clearly she couldn't be talking about me. And when she went on to say that the rest of us should just stick to the StairMaster, my confusion turned into unadulterated rage. I would rather strangle myself with the laces on my running shoes that step foot on a StairMaster.
Just what the world needs: yet another "fitness expert" telling women not to run. What next, a return to the days when women were barred from marathons? When women were told to never to run more than a half-mile? When everyone was worried our uteri would be jarred loose, only to go splat on the sidewalk below?
The content of the post particularly annoyed me because according to the author, I am one of those women who should not be running. In the universe occupied by the blog post's author, I have somehow defied physics and anatomy and the will of the divine to be able to run the way I do. Either I am magical, or the author is wrong. As much as I'd like to believe that I'm the athletic equivalent of a unicorn, I'm inclined to go with the second option.
Evidently I was not the only female runner who was outraged, because the blogger pulled down the post a couple of hours later, citing the "mean" comments she had received, which she felt were not worth the aggravation.
I wanted to write about the information in the post even though it was no longer available, so I did some hunting around and found that the blogger had rehashed some information that first started making the rounds in the online fitness community in 2007 and resurfaces periodically since then, often with only the slightest changes to make it seem as though the work is original.
The original author of the article is a strength-and-conditioning coach named Mike Boyle, and in it he writes that successful female runners "look just like men runners," and that they generally "do not look like plus-size models." He goes on to discuss the Q-angle, which is the angle at which the hip bone joins the knee. Wider hips mean a larger Q-angle, which leads to a greater chance of overuse injuries, which is why he says women who have boobs and wider hips shouldn't run.
Sounds science-y, right? Who can argue with science?
Well, science can.
Another researcher, Paul Juris, looked at the actual study, which compared injury rates of male and female army recruits in basic training and found that the women were injured at twice the rate of the men. That study suggested that the Q-angle could be responsible for this discrepancy.
The problem, Juris says, is that the relationship between running injuries and Q-angle is not all that clear. There could be a lot of other reasons why female recruits were more likely to be injured than male recruits, like their overall condition when they first started training. Juris goes on to make the point that another study found "runners who were more physically fit were less exposed to risks, regardless of their gender." The theory that there is some kind of special anatomical difference that makes women more likely to get hurt is just that: a theory.
Now, it's true that people do get hurt while running all the time. Anyone who works in sports medicine will say this is true. After all, Chris McDougall wrote "Born to Run" after he explored barefoot running as a way to run without getting hurt. Wait, did you catch that? A man with his smaller Q-angle wrote a book about being plagued by running-related injuries. That's because runners tend to get hurt, regardless of their sex or their build or their fitness. Even female runners with narrow hips who qualify for Boston get hurt. Running is a deceptively brutal sport that can exact a toll on anyone who takes part, not just those who have the bodies of elite runners.
Of course, there are ways to minimize your risk, such as weight training, making a conscious effort to have better form or incorporating cross-training into your routine. However, I doubt many running coaches would include "don't be a big-hipped woman with boobs" on that list of preventative measures.
Boyle does make a point that I agree with, which is that people should not just take up running because they think it's going to be a way to get super-thin really fast. If getting fit is your primary goal, there are lots of other ways to do it. Let's be frank – if you don't like to run, it can suck pretty hard. If you hate running, you shouldn't do it. Period.
But here's the thing – not all of us who run do so because we are trying to look like Kara Goucher. We do it even though we may not be thin or slim-hipped or flat-chested. And not all of us are out there forcing ourselves through the miles because we secretly hate ourselves. We run because we love it. For most of us, running has made our lives better. I know this is true for me. Running has made me more confident, braver, tougher. I suspect that if you go to a road race on any given Saturday morning and ask the women standing around, most of them would tell you the same.
And yet if I had listened to Boyle and his acolytes, I would have looked in the mirror and thought that running wasn't for me, simply because I don't look like a runner. I would have missed out on one of the great pleasures in my life, just because I happened to be born with the genetics for height and wider hips.
Women already hear plenty about all the things we should or should not do, that our bodies are not suited for, that we'd be better off not doing. I don't know about you, but I'm rather tired of hearing the litany of the things I shouldn't do because I'm a woman. I love to run, I'm good at running, and I'm going to keep doing it until I can't anymore, no matter what the experts say.
Caitlin Constantine is a writer, runner and triathlete in Clearwater, Fla. She blogs at Fit and Feminist. Her writing has also appeared in Bitch and Huffington Post.