6 Past and Present Myths About Women Runners

March 8th was International Women’s Day, which meant celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The theme for this year was #PressforProgress. Women have been kicking butt in the running sphere lately. We definitely need to celebrate the progress that has been made! You’ll never get to where you’re going if you don’t know where you started.

I thought it would be fun (frustrating?) to see what woman runners have had to overcome in the past. I wanted to see which myths have kept women from running, and if there were any current ideas and theories that were still holding our fellow girlfriends back. Grab some tea because this deserves some *sips tea* action.

Competitive women are biologically deformed.

In the mid-to-late 1800s, doctors related biology to behavior, so the fact that females had a uterus and ovaries meant that women were passive and a little dumb. Since women were supposed to be calm and meek, any woman who showed any tendency towards ambition and competitiveness was developmentally immature and could get sick more easily. Any woman who engaged in sports, then, could be sterile (at best) and transmit her “disease” to her children (at worst).

Running will make a woman’s uterus fall out.

Doctors took the above myth a little further. In 1898, a doctor in Berlin wrote in the German Journal of Physical Education that “violent movements of the body can cause a shift in the position and a loosening of the uterus as well as prolapse and bleeding, with resulting sterility, thus defeating a woman’s true purpose in life, i.e., the bringing forth of strong children.”

Think this myth stayed in the 1800s? Think again. Katherine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967, recalls in her memoir how her high school’s basketball coach—a woman—told her that women would never play the men’s version of basketball because the “excessive number of jump balls could displace the uterus.”

Now let’s move into the myths that still haunt us today. Many of them still relate to our reproduction. Because, like that German doctor wrote, having babies is all women are good for, right?

Running too much will make it difficult to get pregnant.

Specifically, that it will negatively affect your fertility by causing you to lose your period. While consistently missing your period is a serious problem, it’s not the running itself that’s the cause. There are a lot of things at play when it comes to a woman’s cycle and fertility.

As this article explains, your body requires a certain amount of energy in the form of calories to function normally. Any deficiency triggers hormonal effects. Most of the time when female runners regularly miss their periods, a calorie deficit is at play that causes the body to shut down the menstrual cycle. Sometimes the calorie deficit is the result of disordered eating. Other times, women just don’t know how much energy they require, or simply train so much that it’s hard to catch up with the calorie burn. Running alone is not the culprit.

Is there a time when running could be a problem? Women who exercise have been shown to have lower progesterone levels in the luteal phase, which could theoretically affect their ability to conceive and carry. But it’s not clear that running itself is the reason the hormone is so low.

Running is unsafe during pregnancy. You might shake the baby loose, or increase your risk of early pregnancy loss, stillbirth, or neonatal death.

This is reminiscent of the prolapsing uterus myth, but on a much more dangerous scale! Anyone who knows about the female body during pregnancy knows that babies are cushioned by amniotic fluid and can’t be shaken loose. There is also no evidence of any increase in miscarriage risk, stillbirth, or neonatal death with exercise. In fact, exercise improves placenta growth and fetal development.

However, pregnant women runners may need to get used to a slower speed – ligament pain can inhibit pace and stride. Other than that, running during pregnancy is fine.

Running will make your boobs sag.

Look, women’s breasts will start to droop no matter what. It’s a natural part of getting older. Connective tissue in the breasts called Cooper’s ligaments start to stretch out, and fat becomes more prevalent rather than breast tissue. That will happen whether a woman runs or not.

That said, the ligaments of the breasts move in a figure eight pattern when a woman runs. Wearing an ineffective sports bra may stretch ligaments even more than they naturally do, plus it’s just plain uncomfortable. Just make sure your sports bra fits correctly to limit the amount of motion in the breasts.

Running will ruin your joints.

Ah. The myth that does not discriminate based on gender. But this idea is prevalent enough that I would like to address it along with all of the others. Being a runner does not mean that arthritis is inevitable. Sure, poor form, running despite an injury, and not enough cross-training could lead to joint pain. But a healthy running habit does not contribute to arthritis. In fact, running could help prevent or treat arthritis. Joints adapt to running, which can help prevent or treat degeneration associated with inactivity.

You may have also heard that women are more prone to knee injuries than men. While that is true, the reasons for this are actually not clear; don’t let anyone tell you that you’re predestined to knee injuries because your hips are wider than a man’s or your “Q angle” (the line from the top of your hip to the center of your kneecap) is all wrong.

What’s your favorite myth about running

I'm an Alabama girl currently living in Kentucky. I'm a middle of the pack runner, although I've finally decided to try to get a little faster. As a Catholic woman, my faith informs most of my life, so I'll be writing about faith and running, with some dashes of mental health and female body topics thrown in.

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1 comment

  1. Thank you, great article. Unfortunately this is still a thing. My favorite is one you covered: hurting your unborn baby…i heard it from my dad, uncles, co-workers and friends. Women in my life didn’t have much to say other than, “so good you’re still running”. That baby was born about 20 months ago (8lbs at 2 wks early), and he’s a healthy, happy toddler now, who still likes running with mom.