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4 Keys to Helping Teen Girl Runners Thrive

Healthy habits when young will set them up for a lifetime of happy running.

arcadia invitational track meet
Gina FerazziGetty Images

If you travel the ranges of the sports world long enough, like any mountain, the conditions change as you climb higher. The risks get larger, the air gets thinner, the fellow hikers a lot more sparse, and it’s easier to slip or lose your way.

Two-time NCAA champion Sara Slattery and I have been pretty high up in the peaks of running. We were both invigorated by the sights at the top of our climbs and the empowering experience of the journey, but we were also acutely aware of the girls who didn’t continue past the rocky points, or were knocked off course by things we hoped wouldn’t ensnare us either: “She went through puberty, so she’s done” or “She’s a head case” or “Another eating disorder.” Those comments could peel a girl right off the trail.

We realize today, after hearing stories from high-profile athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka on the importance of protecting your physical and mental well-being as an athlete, that at all levels, there’s a line we walk in sports. It takes intentional route planning to stay on a path that’s edifying and empowering, especially for girls and women for whom societal pressures are different. Our bodies are, too. It means knowing how to navigate away from the destructive elements in the sport. This, of course, isn’t entirely our responsibility, but a little armor never hurts!

How She Did It: Stories, Advice, and Secrets to Success from Fifty Legendary Distance Runners
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That’s why we decided to crowd-source advice for girls and young women in sport from some of the best women distance runners and endurance sports experts we know for our book How She Did It.

You see, we don’t want to be alone at the top of this mountain. The questions shaping our book were in part about what we would have liked to have as an inspiration and resource growing up, but also about how we’d want our and everyone’s daughters raised in sport.

We want to keep girls in the sport, have them realize their potential, and have it be a net positive experience in their budding lives. The attrition rate for girls in sport is 29 percent higher than boys between 8th and 12th grade. It’s worth staying in the game, even if the college or pro ranks aren’t anywhere in sight. Ninety percent of the few existing female CEOs played a sport growing up. There are also a number of health and academic benefits to staying in sport longer. These numbers show that there are real hurdles for a girl participating in sport, but that they’re worth addressing because of the incredible benefits to a girl’s confidence, agency, and more by staying in them.

Between the advice from experts in the endurance sports world and interviews with 50 elite women runners, here were four key points that arose.

Girls’ improvement rates during puberty may differ from boys’

Renowned exercise physiologist Trent Stellingwerff says that when you’re training girls through puberty, their timeline for improvement might differ from that of boys. While boys continue to get stronger as their bodies change, girls have to learn to work with an ever changing-body. That difference can make their progression look like a roller coaster for a few years. Sara would hear coaches say a girl is done running well because she went through puberty and therefore has a body that’s not well-suited to distance running. Sara would think, “I went through puberty before I started this sport. Does that mean I don’t even have a future?”

I didn’t get my period until I was 19 due to not enough breaks in training and improper fueling. This increased my risk for bone injury, which I faced for a few years in college. Even I wondered if I was cut out for the sport after my third stress fracture in 18 months.

Trent says, “A high school girl runner isn’t just a slower high school boy runner. She’s developing at a different rate, so her training shouldn’t mimic that of boys her age.” The goal during this time is to not chase short-term success at the expense of long-term health and involvement in the sport.

Don’t specialize in running too early

Chiropractor John Ball and sports medicine physician Adam Tenforde both recommend that runners not exclusively focus on a structured running program too early. Adam cites research showing that women runners who played a ball sport in their youth had a 50 percent reduced risk of developing a stress fracture throughout their running career. Forty of the 50 world-class women we interviewed for our book had this sort of sports background.

These facts are counter to many parents’ belief that kids need private coaching and structured hours of workouts from a young age if they ever want a shot at greatness, or even a scholarship. In distance running, this strategy actually isn’t supported by the outcomes.

Women like Edna Kiplagat, Shalane Flanagan, and Sara Hall have won major marathons or made a world championship team after the age of 35. You can improve in running for a long time. The podiums at most world-class races are stood on by grown women rather than girls. The risk of burnout and injury at a young age could derail a girl’s ability to keep training well later when her peak is possibly more naturally ready to form.

Fuel our girls well

Many athletes in the book struggled with outright eating disorders and the concomitant Low Energy Availability (LEA) that eventually sidelined them for months and even years. We heard from Japanese record-holder Hitomi Niiya and Olympic medalist Molly Seidel about their struggles in this area.

Notable are the women missing from the book. Many girls were knocked out of competitive running for good, like too many of the past female high school national cross-country champions who were felled by some range of underfueling to disordered eating.

Stacy Sims, M.D., an expert in female physiology and training, says whether the cause is an eating disorder or a misguided diet, “If you compromise your fueling, for recovery it’s as if you didn’t do the workout session at all.” She notes how LEA causes Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S), which entails frequent illness, recurring injury, absent menstrual periods, poor concentration, and poor performance in sport. All of that can throw a girl far enough off course that she doesn’t return to the sport.

Representation matters

Only 3 to 5 percent of sports media coverage in the U.S. includes women’s sports. For a girl to stay in sport, it helps to have relatable role models and see what her next steps can look like; she needs access to the women in sport. We hope this book helps showcase 50 possible role models for young athletes. The women come from a variety of backgrounds, had unique ups and downs in their careers, and approach their sports lives in many different ways. We hope girls can see, if not their potential future selves, the idea that there are a lot of options out there among these 50 different stories.

How do you want your daughter raised in sport? Many parents have an eye toward giving their children the best possible access to resources, to get a leg up in life and set them up for success. We’d want our girls to have collected more strengths than scars in their competitive days. We want them to look back at their formative years in sport and smile remembering them. We want them to draw on the ways it fortified their attitudes and opened their minds when they go on to do other things. We don’t want it to feel like another form of rat race and go the way of some competitive activities that can sour with too many of the wrong elements. We want it to take their light and make it brighter as they walk through the world.

Sport can do that, and we hope this for your daughters, too.

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