Gender Equity at XC Races

While on a FB this week (because yes I was wasting time on FB), I saw the CityTV news post on Gender Equity for Ontario XC Races, so I thought I would weigh in on the topic.

To start, it’s not Gender Equity, it’s Sex Equity (Gender is the socialized cultural term, Sex is the biological term to distinguish male and female – a debate we can leave until another day).

I come to elite running on a non-traditional pathway. I do not exactly follow the standard Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model of a distance runner. But if you take a 30,000 foot approach versus a 10,000 foot approach my training mirrored a distance running LTAD program. I may not have always done run specific training but I was always building my speed and aerobic capacity between ultimate frisbee, cycling, and casual running, and strength with Alpine Skiing (nothing like 1000 squats/day at altitude).

You might think as a female that I would demand sex equity for the distances in cross-country. If I step back and think about it in terms of the greater good of the athlete here are some of the thoughts that I had.

Bringing the Girl’s Distance Up to Boy’s Distance
One of the fears I have with equalizing the races and bringing the girl’s distances up to the boy’s distance is the over-training and burnout. Already we see some girls doing a really high volume of training, running 100+ kilometres per week. Not only are these high volumes not sustainable for young women but the burnout factor from this type of training is quite high.

At these young ages it needs to be more about Deliberate Play instead of Deliberate Practice. Yes, there needs to be some specific training but it should have a high element of fun and games to it. I love seeing the girls that kick butt in running who play a lot of soccer, or really any other sport for that matter.

Bringing The Boy’s Distance Down to the Girl’s Distance
If you’re going to talk about one you have to debate the other. What if instead the boys raced the same distance as the girls? In terms of LTAD there are some benefits to these young gents. Like the girls with the longer distances there is a higher chance of over-training and burnout with the boys as well.

From a LTAD perspective it may make more sense to bring the distance down for these young gents. We all go through puberty at different times and for the guys who are delayed it can be tougher on their bodies to go to these longer distances.

A Compromise
Maybe the solution is a compromise. Canadian university cross-country increased the women’s distance from 5km to 6km in 2013 to match what the American Universities run. (For reference the current NCAA Div 1 distances are 6km for women and 10km for men).

What if instead of increasing the women’s to the men’s distances the women’s and men’s races found a compromise, somewhere between 7 and 8km? Another suggestion has been to do it based on time; for instance aiming for an approximately 25-30 min race for men and women and picking an appropriate distance for those times accordingly.

What’s left to debate
The jump from the OFSAA distance of 7k to the NCAA Div 1/CIS 10km can be quite challenging as well for the boys. And why with the girl’s OFSAA race at 5km is the boy’s race not closer to the university level distance?

But it really doesn’t make sense to make the girl’s race longer in high school than what they will run in university.

In the end I really care about the health and well-being of the athletes, men and women equally. I want to see the next generation of Canadian distance runners make their mark on the world scene. If we think about LTAD then increasing the girl’s distance is not in the best interest of the athletes. In addition, I think longer distances may drive more girls away.

There is no easy solution. Whatever solution is resolved it should be one to keep the athlete’s health and wellbeing centralized in the conversation, one that increases participation in sport (in an era where physical activity is decreasing), and one that is sustainable for years to come.