Why the Conversation about Women's Performance Matters
Feisty CEO Sara Gross on how more knowledge about female-specific performance can accelerate fitness success
By: Sara Gross
Eight days before I won my first Ironman I finished an ugly and hard-fought 18th at Ironman Texas, one hour and six minutes behind the winner. Even in a long race like Ironman, an hour behind is an eternity.
As a professional athlete, I was late to the dance when it came to winning. Despite dozens of podium finishes, it took me ten years to figure out how to manage all the factors that went into getting the best performance out of myself. Not because I didn’t have the drive or work ethic or support team to win, but because no one around me really understood how to get the best out of the aspects of my physiology that were specifically female. And I don’t blame anyone for that. We didn’t know any better back then.
The stars finally aligned at Ironman Brazil in 2014 and I won my first Ironman, but the story no one ever asks about is what happened the week before when I finished almost dead last in Texas. The day after that epic fail, I chose to trust what I had learned through 10 years of trial and error and I said to myself, this performance neither reflects my fitness nor my potential and instead of flying back home to Canada, I got on a flight to South America.
After my win in Brazil, a video of me during the race, frustrated an
d stuck behind a massive group of male cyclists, was posted on a well-known online forum. A debate ensued that eventually hit the front pages of triathlon media about whether or not I had cheated in order to win.
Besides the fact that it is ridiculous to think that a 13-second video can summarize a nine-hour race, several of my dissenters pointed to the terrible race I had the week before shouting, “Look! she’s not capable of winning without cheating!!”
Eight years later, it is clear to me exactly what was going on. That day in Texas, I was at the tail end of my luteal phase, 36 hours before starting my period and it was the WORST possible time to expect my female body to perform. I even *kinda* knew it at the time. I instinctively knew enough to get on a plane to Brazil, but I didn’t really know, you know? I had no science to back up my feelings, just personal experience and anecdotes from fellow athletes.
And it’s no wonder I didn’t know what the hell was going on with my body. My coaches didn’t know, my doctor didn’t know, heck, sports science didn’t even know. And the little we did know was all bad news about how our hormones get in the way of our performance. No one ever thought to ask, how can I mitigate the negative effects of my cycle through nutrition or training adaptations and actually perform?
Layer on the fact that we live in a culture that seems to believe that I should be totally consistent (read: more like a man) in my performances week to week and when I wasn’t- I must be cheating.
Years later someone recommended Dr. Stacy Sims’ book ROAR, and I finally had some answers. Or at least felt I wasn’t cheating, or worse - crazy.
You may not care about winning an Ironman but maybe you do wonder why your workouts feel terrible at certain times of the month, or why you don’t seem to adapt to training as quickly as your male friends, or why you feel like you don't belong when you show up at an event.
I used to quietly accept that my training gains might be affected by my menstrual cycle and that it was up to me to figure it out on my own, or that I just had to put up with an uncomfortable bike saddle, or that the “one size fits all” race t-shirt was ginormous. That’s how things had always been.
It only occurred to me relatively recently - and settled in over time - that I was playing in an arena that was not designed for me. And once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it.
The Shift - A Focus on Performance
When it comes to our health and performance as women, we are only at the beginning of having good dependable information we can trust. In the years since my 2014 races described above, only 6% of exercise science studies have been done exclusively on women. Loosely translated this means: we still barely know anything about how to get the best out of our bodies.
And we live in a culture that is deeply broken when it comes to women’s health and sports. The fitness industry has long advertised the idea that there is something wrong with us, that our bodies need to change into whatever the acceptable beauty standards of the day are. This same industry stands at the ready to sell us all the solutions to our weight-loss, fitness, and beauty “problems.”
Add this to the massive gender pay gap in professional sports, the fact that girls drop out of sport at twice the rate of boys, that puberty & menopause are understudied and misunderstood.
This leaves women in a difficult position because what little information is out there about women’s fitness and athletic performance is hard to decipher and even harder to trust. How do we know who and what we can put our faith in?
And it’s not just about periods and hormone cycles. As women, we have unique experiences that affect not just our physical health, but also our mental health and feeling of belonging in the spaces in which we work out. That’s why at Feisty, we are approaching change-making using Four Feisty Pillars of Performance: Physiology, Nutrition, Mental Health, and Culture.
We talk a lot about empowering women. An important part of empowering women is giving us the trusted tools we need to get the best from our bodies. Equally important is creating an empowering culture - a space where we feel strong and powerful in our bodies and chase whatever goals we have throughout our lifetime.
Feisty Women’s Performance Summit
Want to learn more about how to get the best out of your body? Join us for the virtual Feisty Women's Performance Summit March 25-27. USAT members get $50 off the annual pass with code USAT50 at checkout.
Learn more at womensperformance.com/womensperformancesummit.
About the Author
Sara Gross is the CEO and Founder of Feisty Media. After defending her PhD in Women’s History in 2008, Sara competed as a professional triathlete for 14 years and won two Ironman titles and two major championships. Sara founded Feisty Media in 2017 with the goal of creating an empowering culture for all active women. Sara also hosts the Feisty Women’s Performance Podcast, If We Were Riding podcast, and is an amateur CrossFitter.