The Missing Puzzle Piece For Young Female Athletes

By Katie Whidden, Endurance Coach at Lifelong Endurance

My Story: From Lanky to a Deceptively Strong Athlete

The middle school years can be the most challenging period of our lives. It is an awkward time where we are desperately trying to fit in and not stand out in any way. That was not my story, in the eighth grade I was 6’2” and 145 pounds. I had hit a huge growth spurt that year and was towering over my peers. I was lanky, had a face full of acne and was completely unsure of myself.

That was also the time that I found basketball and quickly realized that it was something I could be good at with enough practice. I had dreams of playing basketball at the next level but was getting pushed around the court by stronger athletes. Fortunately, I was exposed to strength and conditioning in 10th grade and it felt like I had found the missing puzzle piece.

I started noticing changes in my game, instead of getting the ball taken from me after a rebound I was holding my own and showing better speed and agility than ever before. My legs were no longer wiry thin, instead they looked sculpted and strong. The change in my confidence was day and night as I learned to appreciate and respect my body for all that it was capable of.

My hard work in the weight room and on the court paid off. Now that I had strength, I could put it all together on the court. In the fall of my senior year, I was offered a division one scholarship to Elon University where I competed for 4 years. Strength was so transformational to my confidence and athletic performance that I knew I had to spend the rest of my life sharing its power with others.

The Subtle Confidence Building Moments

I was pulled so strongly towards working with youth and in the field of strength and conditioning that in 2012 I left my corporate career in finance to pursue coaching. Initially, I worked with athletes in a variety of sports but over the past 6 years I have dedicated my focus to the youth runners on our team, Peak Performance Running. While I love working with all athletes I have seen the biggest physical and emotional changes in the young females that I work with.

When most teenage girls enter the weight room they are entering a space that can amplify their insecurities, if they decide to enter at all. Most young girls are struggling to handle the changes that come with developing their adult bodies. They are at a stage in their life where fitting in is so important and trying new things where they might look incompetent and feel embarrassed is to be avoided as much as possible. Frequently, I witness the smartest of my girls acting giggly and ditzy during those first few practices to assuage their discomfort.

Over time these athletes become comfortable with the movements, they start learning about their bodies ability to move in different ways and grow curious about their limits. For the first time I see them go over and grab a heavier weight than they were using previously. It is in those moments that we notice subtle shifts in their confidence. They stand a little taller and start carrying themselves more confidently at practice.

This confidence transfers over to other areas of life outside the weight room. Their parents tell us that they start speaking up in class and sharing more at the dinner table. These young ladies start to see themselves as not only a capable runner but as a strong and durable athlete able to handle whatever life throws at them. They learn from a young age that a woman’s body can be strong!

Managing the Dreaded Sophomore Slump

At some point every girl’s body stops focusing on performance and starts maturing into a female body. This can be a frustrating time for female runners, especially if they have had prior success as a runner. We have coined this period of time the sophomore slump and while not every athlete goes through this decrease in performance during their sophomore year it is around that time period. It is quite common to see their running progression slow, injuries pop up, and the desire to continue putting in the mileage decreases as poor results roll in.

While I can provide you with a list of reasons as to why female runners should lift, the most important reason is how it helps athletes navigate this dreaded time period. These athletes are struggling with who they “used to be” as a runner and exposure to the weight room gives them an opportunity to move from having one point of reference for success and progress to a well rounded athlete with multiple reference points.

They realize that they have a place, the weight room, where they can come to be strong and confident in their own skin even when it feels like their bodies are failing them with decreased times. The gym becomes a place of pride for them as they see increases in the weight they are able to lift. This is a space where they can still see progress during this challenging period and learn to trust themselves as athletes again.

A Lifelong Place of Comfort

We often hear from parents who are extremely grateful that their athlete now feels empowered in the gym. They share how their athlete is able to enter a gym with the knowledge of what to do in there. We have seen them transition from that shy and physically underdeveloped freshman to strong senior with a sense of self.

For our athletes the weight room has become something they prioritize into their training schedule and make it a point to join programs that offer strength training when selecting colleges to attend. They realize the value in terms of injury prevention and want it to be a consistent part of their training regime.

For all the changes I have witnessed in myself and the young athletes that I train, I will continue to be an advocate for strength training for young female runners. I am on a mission to continue to expose more athletes to the benefit of strength training. I truly believe it is one of the most impactful things that your athlete can do to have an edge on competition and is a skill that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. Trust me, your athlete’s life will be forever changed for the better with the investment in this type of training.

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