Once upon a time, women accounted for only a tiny fraction of runners and race participants. Prior to 1984, women weren’t even permitted to compete in the Olympic Marathon.
How times have changed! Today, well over half of all road-race participants are female. Women’s participation in trail running is following a similar trajectory, albeit a bit further behind on the timeline. More men participate in trail races annually—even more disproportionately at ultra distances.
However, female participation is rising each year—and for good reason.
The benefits of trail running are no different for women than they are for men. A few commonly cited ones include the:
• joy of being in nature
• endorphin high of exercise
• health benefits
• sense of challenge and accomplishment
• camaraderie of the trail-running community
• ability to consume calories more freely than your non-exercising peers.
While all of the above are universal, statistics show that even in our modern society, women spend more time on average than men do on household chores and childcare duties—so, some might argue that women especially stand to benefit from a bit of “me time” in the form of a trail run.
Not to mention that, in a society that frequently expects women to be clean and proper, getting a bit muddy and adventurous in the wild is just plain fun!
Ladies Only: Women-Specific Clubs, Programs, Races and Events
Not all women agree on the best way to get more women involved in trail running (or whether, for that matter, such a goal is worthwhile or necessary).
Some believe their fellow ladies need not be especially encouraged—or, worse, coddled—to run trails. One of the fun aspects of trail running, after all, is that unlike many other organized athletic pursuits, women and men compete alongside each other. Certainly, with time, the sport will naturally continue diversifying across the gender divide.
Nonetheless, some believe in the value of taking more proactive steps to encourage other women to try trail running. This includes addressing some of the barriers women may face—be they lack of time, lack of trail access, lack of resources or knowledge (perhaps specifically, issues such as how to handle peeing or menstruation in the backcountry), or insecurities about falling, getting lost or being attacked while running solo. (It’s worth noting, of course, that most of these issues can apply to anyone, not just women!)
This has given rise to a number of women-specific trail-running clubs, events and races. See the Resources section for some examples. Many women enjoy the sense of camaraderie, empowerment and fun social time that comes with running in a group of other women. If this sounds up your alley, don’t hesitate to reach out to women’s trail-running groups in your area; the world is full of friendly, badass women eager to share the gospel of their sport with novices!
The Risks and Rewards of Running Alone
Plenty of existing literature discourages women from running trails alone, due to safety risks. And certainly, many women prefer to run in the company of others for better peace of mind.
No doubt, there are inherent risks to running alone—though most are unrelated to gender. (See the Safety chapter for more general safety advice.) Wildlife attacks, though extremely rare, can often be deterred by traveling in a group—especially a noisy one, since the human voice is one of the most effective tools for scaring off animals. Running with a partner or group is also good insurance in the event you twist an ankle or suffer some other acute injury on the run.
Fear of human attackers, however rare they are, can also be a factor—and one more apt to affect women than men. However, do keep in mind that such predators are statistically far less common in backcountry areas than in more populated, urban environs. Overcoming the fears associated with being alone in the outdoors can be a highly empowering experience for many women. Solitary trail runs, after all, proffer many gifts.
Find a Good Sports Bra
Running requires an exceptionally high level of support from your bra—especially if you have a larger chest. The best sports bra for someone wearing a 32A is generally a different product entirely from the best choice for someone wearing a 36DD. Keep this in mind if and when consulting product reviews; try to get your recommendations from similarly proportioned reviewers.
If possible, get measured at a store (while wearing a regular bra) to ensure you’re trying on the right size. You may feel silly doing so, but when you try on a bra in a store dressing room, jog in place or do some jumping jacks to test the bra’s support level. There should be no wrinkles in the bra fabric when you try it on, as these can signify that a bra is too big. At the same time, don’t go too small; you want ample coverage of your bosom.
If a bra band has multiple sets of hooks to fasten it, buy the one that fits snugly on the loosest set of hooks. This way, as the bra stretches out over time, you can snug up the fit by using the second or third set of hooks. Similarly, some sports bras offer adjustable shoulder straps. These can help not only customize the initial fit, but also revitalize the support of a bra that’s stretched out over time.
Once you’ve found running bras you do love, take good care of them. If possible, wash them by hand and hang or lay flat to dry; washing machines and dryers are hard on the elastic and can dramatically reduce your bra’s lifespan.
Finally, be mindful of wearing the same bra past its expiration date. Once it starts losing its support or begins chafing your skin regularly (often a product of sweat/salt buildup in the fabric over time), it’s time to purchase a fresh one.
Pee in the Woods
If you have questions about how to pee in the woods, you’re not alone! Many women new to trail running wonder about best practices. Here’s a primer. (For gender-neutral advice on how to poop in the woods, see the chapter on Trail Etiquette.)
First, find a spot away from the trail. Don’t venture farther away than necessary (people routinely get lost doing this); go behind a large rock or tree if you’re worried about other trail users seeing you. Avoid peeing near water sources. Watch out for any poison ivy/oak, cacti, sharp pine needles, brambles, stinging nettles or other texturally unsavory plants before popping a squat. If possible, find a place that will allow you to pee downhill to prevent anything trickling onto your shoes.
Squat all the way down, with your butt directly behind your heels, just inches off the ground. This position can reduce the stress on your quads, the chance of losing your balance, and also the likelihood of “pee splatter” on your shoes or pants by keeping your stream short. If need be, you can use one hand on a nearby rock or tree for balance. You don’t have to pull your shorts or pants very far down to get them out of the way; think mid-thigh or knee.
After relieving themselves, many women use the “drip and dry” method—that is, give yourself a few moments to air dry as much as possible (give yourself a good shake to help things along) before pulling your pants back up. Or, you can use broad plant leaves as natural toilet paper. (Before doing so, be sure you can identify and avoid any poisonous ones in your area.) If you prefer to be able to wipe with actual toilet paper, follow Leave No Trace principles by packing it out; after wiping, seal up the toilet paper in a small plastic baggie, and dispose of it later in a proper trash can.
Some women opt to use a “pee rag” to dry off with. This is essentially a bandana or handkerchief that you can tie to the outside of your hydration pack when not in use; it will dry naturally as you run, and you can wash it when you get back home.
One final option: invest in a “female urination device,” or pee funnel, as they’re often called. These little pieces of plastic permit women to pee standing up. Be warned that they take a fair amount of practice to master, so try them at home in the shower before attempting to use one in the wild.
Handle Your Period
Here’s the good news: there’s no need to dread this time of the month, even if you have long training runs or a race on the calendar. Studies have consistently shown that active menstruation has no statistically significant effect on athletic performance.
Find yourself suffering from cramps on race day or during a training run? Even though it may be hard to get motivated to get out the door, running can actually help alleviate such symptoms. While popping nonsteroidal-anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen—which include popular brands such as Advil, Motrin or Aleve—can be helpful in relieving symptoms, be careful and take them only sparingly or not at all; studies show that taking such drugs before or during strenuous exercise (such as a race) can exacerbate damage to the intestines, liver and kidneys.
A better option for dealing with cramps is to do some abdominal stretches before hitting the trail. You can also try applying a heat pad to your belly for several minutes, which can also help alleviate abdominal pain. Be sure to drink plenty of water (and, ideally, avoid consuming alcohol); you may be more susceptible to dehydration while menstruating, which can exacerbate cramps. If cramps get exceptionally bad in the middle of your run, don’t hesitate to slow down or take a walking break.
As for dealing with your period in the woods on long training runs or during ultras, this need not create stress either. If you’ll need to change out a pad or tampon during your run, stash two small plastic baggies in your running pack—one with fresh supplies, sanitary wipes or toilet paper and a small container of hand sanitizer, and the other to use as a trash bag to pack out your used supplies.
Many female trail runners also swear by reusable menstrual cups. These silicone, bell-shaped products are worn inside the vagina and can provide up to 12 hours of leak-free protection—enough to last the duration of most trail-running adventures, so you won’t have to worry about changing anything on the go.
If you do need to change your menstrual cup out in the woods, however, be sure to dig a proper cat hole away from water sources (see the Trail Etiquette chapter for more on Leave No Trace principles) before emptying your cup’s contents. Use toilet paper to wipe the cup as clean as possible before reinserting, then wash your hands thoroughly with hand sanitizer and/or a sanitary wipe.
Special Health Considerations for Women
Back in the day, some doctors actually believed that a woman’s uterus would fall out if she tried to run too fast or too long. Fortunately, societal understanding of women’s bodies and athletic capabilities has come a long way since then.
Nonetheless, there are a few special health concerns that women runners should be aware of.
In part because of menstrual bleeding and blood loss during childbirth, women are more susceptible to iron-deficiency anemia than men. Following certain restrictive diets common among endurance athletes can also put women at additional risk for iron deficiency. These include veganism, vegetarianism and gluten-free diets, since meat, seafood and iron-fortified cereals are some of the best dietary sources of iron. Additionally, regular use of pain relievers can also cause internal bleeding in the stomach that further depletes iron.
Iron deficiency can manifest itself with a host of symptoms detrimental to running performance, including fatigue, weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat and cold hands or feet. If any of these symptoms sound familiar, schedule a doctor visit to see about having a complete blood-cell test done. Treatment for anemia includes iron supplements and/or dietary changes.
While anyone can suffer overuse injuries, the anatomy of most women’s bodies can put them at greater risk for certain problems. Women’s pelvises tend to be wider than men’s, leading to what’s called an increased “Q angle”—which predisposes women to injuries such as patellofemoral (knee) pain and iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome. Also, due in part to risk factors related to the Female Athlete Triad (see sidebar below), women experience stress fractures at a statistically higher rate than men do.
See the Injury chapter for more on preventing and treating such injuries.
Pregnancy and Trail Running
Societal attitudes and scientific understanding about women running while pregnant has also evolved greatly over the years. Today, medical professionals believe that if you are a healthy woman with a low-risk pregnancy, you can continue to run and train throughout your pregnancy. In and of itself, exercise will not increase your risk for complications or miscarriage.
In fact, most doctors strongly encourage women to exercise during their pregnancy. Doing so not only helps keep your health in check, it actively reduces your risk for many pregnancy-related conditions. No doubt, you’ll also find trail running to be a terrific mental break—an opportunity to relax, clear your mind and spend some quality time with your unborn child.
Keep in mind, of course, that your normal training pace will naturally slow the further you get into your pregnancy. Exercise extra caution if you do venture onto technical terrain or steep descents to avoid any nasty falls. If you do take a mild spill, know that the amniotic fluid in your uterus provides a natural form of protection for your baby. A more serious fall can have more dangerous repercussions, though, so if in doubt, play it safe.
Of course, especially during the third trimester of your pregnancy, it may be prudent to avoid venturing too far into the backcountry. You don’t want to be hours away from medical assistance if, say, you happen to go into early labor.
How Menopause Affects Running
The average age for American women to experience menopause is 51 years. Given that many women trail run well into their 50s, 60s, 70s and sometimes even 80s, managing the challenges of menopause as an athlete is a task many of us will face at one point in our lives.
Here’s the good news: Studies have shown that running can help mitigate menopause’s less savory symptoms, such as sleep disruptions, hot flashes, mood swings and weight gain. Weight-bearing exercise and strength training also helps build and maintain bone density, which menopause can otherwise be hard on.
That said, such symptoms can also make finding motivation to get out the door a more formidable challenge. Be gentle with yourself during this time; if, for example, you’ve had trouble getting consistent quality sleep and your runs are suffering as a result, don’t be afraid to reduce your mileage until you’ve had a chance to catch up on sleep. Rest is important.
If you’re worried about intermittent breakthrough bleeding, wearing a reusable menstrual cup on training runs or races can serve as a welcome insurance policy against unwanted leaks.
Because hot flashes and night sweats can exacerbate dehydration and electrolyte loss, it’s also very important to hydrate well throughout the day. Consider investing in a bandana or “cool wrap”—an accessory you can dampen and wear around your neck or forehead during or after a run to help keep you cool. Some women swear by compression gear to help promote blood circulation, too.
You may also find you need to adjust your diet some to avoid the natural weight gain that many women experience during menopause. Consult your doctor, but many women become less tolerant of carbohydrates during menopause—so, even during runs, you may find you have less of a need for sugary gels or energy bars.
Above all, treasure the fact that you are a runner! During menopause—as with all other phases of your life—just remember that a good run can do wonders to promote good health, improve your sleep quality and boost your mood.