When the sports calendars began to fall victim to the pandemic, the athletes of Litttlewing, an elite training group in Bend, Ore., sat down to talk about running in a world without racing.
The team — a group of six female athletes including Rebecca Mehra, a miler who put herself on the map in 2019 with a third-place finish at the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City — had just knocked off a tough workout on a dirt road in the middle of the Deschutes National Forest. The women set up lawn chairs on the side of the road, socially distanced only from their coach, the former elite runner Lauren Fleshman, who was not initially in their quarantine pod.
Once the women were settled, Fleshman posed some questions: What is running to you and who are you if there are no races, no championships, no money to be made, no performance aspect at all? Then what?
The pandemic prompted the question, but the idea wasn’t new. Fleshman had been asking similar questions for the last few years as part of her goal of changing the way elite women view running. If she could help athletes see themselves beyond their speed and their looks — attributes typically valued in female runners — she hoped they could avoid the physical and mental dangers posed by the win-at-all-costs culture that has harmed so many in the past.
“If you strip away a narrow view of an athlete, what’s left is the freedom to be yourself,” Fleshman said. “That’s where the power lies.”
Earlier this year, for instance, Fleshman helped the steeplechaser Mel Lawrence map out goals for the year. Lawrence was focused on napping and cross-training. Fleshman added an unquantifiable metric: Owning who you are.
“I carried myself better in practice,” said Lawrence, who joined Littlewing in 2013 when the group first formed with four athletes. “It affected how hard I pushed, what I put into the workout.”
The idea of a women-centered approach to coaching grew out of Fleshman’s own experience as an athlete. A top runner in high school in Southern California, she won five N.C.A.A. championships in college, including three consecutive outdoor titles in the 5,000. When she went pro, she won two national championships in the 5,000 and placed seventh at the World Championships in the 5,000 in 2011, what was then the highest-ever finish by an American woman at that distance.
But Fleshman believes she never reached her full potential as an athlete, due, in part, to focusing too much on body size. Early in her professional career, she compared her weight to that of the top female athletes on the World Athletics website. To be successful, she calculated, she needed to lose eight pounds. With restrictive eating and hard training, the weight fell off, and she got faster. So Fleshman kept at it.
“If the scale moved in the wrong direction, it would haunt me,” she said.
Health problems followed. Fleshman stopped menstruating, suffered four stress fractures, and was plagued by injuries that contributed to missed opportunities, including not making the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams.
She was not alone. Around her, Fleshman saw other female athletes suffering under the pressure to prioritize their performances above their health. “I watched it destroy lives,” she said, a harsh reality that came to the fore late last year when the elite runner Mary Cain and others publicly accused coach Alberto Salazar at Nike of verbal abuse. This spring, female athletes at Wesleyan University detailed a culture of body shaming promoted by their coach, who has since retired.
To flourish, Fleshman said, female athletes need an environment that honors their physiology, and acknowledges and counters the realities of sexism. “Historically female athletes have been coached as men with boobs, but the male standard clashes with the female experience,” she explained.
Studies have shown disordered eating affects up to 45 percent of female athletes, and can lead to Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports, or RED-S, an energy deficiency caused by eating too little for your activity level. The syndrome affects bone density, hormone levels and other crucial health markers that put athletes at high risk for injury and mental and emotional stress, particularly in a sport like running where weight can play a role in performance.
There’s a talent leak in running, Fleshman said. Many strong female athletes fall through the cracks because of injuries and unsupportive training environments. She wanted Littlewing, a team of now seven runners, to be a patch in the system.
Fleshman and Dr. Sarah Lesko, M.D., an elite athlete manager at Oiselle — the women-led sports apparel company that sponsors Fleshman’s team — talk almost daily about each athlete’s physical, mental and emotional health. And while blood tests to monitor key health markers like stress hormones and red blood cells are routine, there are no weigh-ins or comments about weight.
“There’s really no need to talk about weight unless there’s an unexpected swing,” Fleshman said. “In that case, the dialogue would be from a health perspective.”
Irritability and mood swings can be a precursor of RED-S, so Fleshman, who has a bachelor’s degree in human biology and a masters in education, talks often to her athletes about their energy and mood.
“And periods,” said Fleshman. “I ask a lot about periods.” Amenorrhea, the absence of a period, is a marker of RED-S and reported to affect as many as 60 percent of elite female middle- and long-distance runners.
Fleshman began to see the potential in a new coaching model for women in 2010 when she began exploring who she was outside of athletics, by co-founding Picky Bars and co-authoring a training journal. She attributes her performances in 2010 and 2011 to the start of her living and training on her own terms.
But it wasn’t until late 2012 when she met Lesko and Sally Bergesen, the Oiselle founder and chief executive, that Fleshman fully understood what was possible when female athletes were the single central focus. She signed a contract with a maternity protection clause. The contract did not have reductions for injuries, race quotas or rankings.
“I didn’t have to convince anyone of my worth as a female athlete,” Fleshman said, noting Oiselle signed her knowing she was pregnant with her first child. This was six years before Nike bowed to public pressure from its athletes and changed the structure of its contracts to accommodate for both injuries and pregnancies.
Ultimately, Bergesen hopes to see Littlewing become an established center of power for female athletes that helps influence the industry.
For Fleshman, who is working on a book that highlights the need for a different coaching model for girls, success as a coach means her athletes will eventually need her less and less. During practice, she spends time checking in with each athlete and making adjustments accordingly, a novel concept to some runners who are accustomed to training in a suck-it-up environment.
“We state our own needs and they’re accepted and heard,” marathoner Carrie Mack said of her coach. “That’s what’s radical, and empowering.”