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Running Against the Clock: Female Athletes Often Slowed by Puberty

It’s a situation that can’t just be solved with more training or dieting and should be approached with patience across all sports.

Track and cross country coaches have long been familiar with the unpredictable effects of puberty on female runners, but some may be surprised by the extent of its impact.

In a recent New York Times article “America’s Next Great Running Hope, and One of the Cruelest Twists in Youth Sports,” author Matthew Futterman profiles standout high school runner Katelyn Tuohy, who “might be the best high school runner ever already.”

Since running a 1,500-meter race in 4 minutes and 54 seconds in 7th grade, Katelyn has broken an impressive list of course records. At competitions, she can barely sit still, exuding energy prior to dominating in her races. When she runs, her stride is long and bouncy, each step propelling her forward with power as her long ponytail flaps in the wind.

She never seems to tire either, even while running up to 50 miles a week. And on June 17, 2018, she broke a 36-year-old record by running the fastest mile ever by an American high school girl.

Katelyn’s future may look as bright as the sun, but the truth is that there is no guarantee that she will maintain her impressive success. According to the NYT piece, “since 1980, just one female winner of the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships has made an Olympic team,” meaning that the majority of promising, female youth runners have failed to reach the highest levels of pro competition.

Bill Pierce, co-founder of the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training, points out that projecting future success is so difficult because the body changes too much through puberty, adding that female runners “are nothing but skin and bones and lungs in their early years.”

According to a study on the effects of puberty on female endurance runners, when boys start going through puberty around age 13.5, they increase in muscle mass and build strength. Meanwhile, when girls start going through puberty at 11.5 years, they increase in fat mass and their hips widen, which can substantially affect their running performance in the years following puberty.

The data reveals that boys generally get faster throughout middle school and high school, while girls see their speed improve from 7th grade to 9th grade before it plateaus from 9th to 11th grade.

While this effect maybe be well-known in the running world — especially among track and field recruiters — female athletes in other sports also go through the process. That’s why it’s important for youth sports coaches to keep in mind just how drastic the changes can be for young female athletes. Besides the plateau effect, athletes who are growing taller and heavier have an increased risk of ACL injury, and injuries to growth plates can limit the ability for bones to grow properly. It’s a situation that can’t just be solved with more training or dieting and should be approached with patience across all sports.

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Track & Field, Running, Cross Country Running

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