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Megan Roche strives to make women trail runners faster

By Henry Howard

Growing up, Megan Roche played soccer and looked up to Mia Hamm for inspiration. As Roche transitioned to field hockey as her sport of choice, she turned to Argentinian women players for her role models since the sport was not popular in America.

It’s a similar scenario to a dilemma that is pervasive in trail and ultra running. While there are inspiring women ultra runners, they are generally unknown among the general population. Without popular figures — think Mia Hamm — there is a missing connection between the stars of the sport and the next generation of athletes who are pursuing their sports passions on middle and high school teams now. For Roche, one of the first women runners who inspired here was Lauren Fleshman, the U.S. 5000 meters champion in 2006 and 2010.

“She has an incredible online and social media presence in a way that I think she is just a complete human and she talks about being a runner and navigating mental health, navigating injury, navigating parenting,” Roche says. “I just think it's really neat to see someone bring that authenticity and real vibes out into the world. She uplifts other women in sport. So she's a coach herself, uplifts other women and just does so in that authentic, real way.”

Roche knows all about being uplifting. She and her husband, David Roche, infuse the ultra running community with positivity through their coaching, SWAP podcast and appearances in media.

The Roches encourage all athletes to pursue their dreams in this one wild and precious life. While they aim to motivate men, women and non-binary, it’s the latter two categories that are underrepresented in the sport. During Women’s History Month, it’s a theme I’ve visited previously with this post and this Q&A with Corrine Malcolm.

“Everyone can connect with stories,” Roche says. “Stories and narratives make the strongest role models. And so the more that we can support female athletes on podcasts, on TV interviews, really highlighting their stories and their journeys and the process, I think that elevates women's sport. It also elevates the ability to have role models in sport and for athletes to be able to understand, just the overall journey of what it takes to be a female athlete.”

It’s also up to running shoe companies and other brands that are active in the sport.

“There's not a lot of research out there, but there's certainly a gender gap in terms of pay and how much we are paying and supporting, in particular, female runners, female trail runners versus male trail runners,” she says. “The more that companies can invest in female trail runners and invest in telling their stories. I think that also helps create a stronger representation and a stronger source of role models too.”

Closing the gap

Decades ago women were not allowed to run marathons. It seems ridiculous now, but back then there was concern about their health. i.e. Women can't run long distance because their uterus would fall out.

“I hope that's been debunked,” says Roche, who received her doctorate at Stanford University. “You can go to different communities and find pockets of misinformation on any topic. That's just the unfortunate reality of the world that we're living in today.”

Roche then turns to how women are more competitive the longer the races are.

“If you look at a performance curve from a 5K to a 10K to a marathon, to a 100 mile or to 200 mile, females start closing the gender gap and performance, almost linearly across that distance,” she says. “There can be something empowering for women to start winning races outright at the 100-mile, 200 mile-distance. And I think that's really helping create these positive and empowering conversations.”

Roche is perhaps in the perfect position to help usher in real change.

In addition to her stature in the ultra running community, she is currently conducting research geared toward female athletes.

A look at FASTR

Roche and Dr. Emily Kraus are working on the Female Athlete Science and Translational Research (FASTR) program at Stanford. FASTR focuses on the gender gap in human-performance research, empowering all female athletes to achieve longevity in their chosen sports.

Kraus, a marathoner and cyclist, is a sports-medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Stanford. Roche is an epidemiology Ph.D. candidate with a medical degree from Stanford. Roche is the lead researcher while Kraus is the program director.

“The goal with the FASTR program is to make sure that we're doing research specifically for female athletes,” Roche says, noting how studies are notoriously skewed toward male athletes. “We have a number of different studies within that program ranging from studies on high school athletes and then really just working to span the population.”

There are three key components of the research:

A five-part educational video series. The series is for high school athletes and addresses topics such as bone health, menstrual cycle, fueling, mental health and diversity, equity, inclusion in sport. “We want to give athletes the knowledge they need about their bodies, the knowledge they need about translating that science into performance. We're providing the education that athletes need. And then also working with top athletes and top role models in sport to share their story on those topics.”

A Pac-12 study. “We’re working with Pac-12 schools to roll out a nutrition intervention program to help athletes make sure that they're fueling their bodies well and preventing low energy availability.”

A Western States study. They are wrapping up an initial study but hope to do more to examine the prevalence of the male and female athlete triads and the relationships between energy availability, performance, bone health, and blood hormone measurements such as testosterone, estradiol and vitamin D.

Roche and Kraus launched into their research due to the low representation of females in previous research studies. “It’s really hard to take the findings and studies and apply them to female athletes,” Roche says. “I've seen in the science sometimes there is that disconnect between what is the work done in the field and what, or what is the work done by researchers and what are coaches actually seeing. And I think the more that we can address that gap, the better.”

What’s next

Change won’t come overnight, and it likely won’t be linear. Still, Roche is driven to help female athletes of today and tomorrow.

“Success would be empowering female athletes,” she says. “Often female athletes, their first thought when they think about the menstrual cycle is this is annoying or this is frustrating, or this is something I have to deal with. The more that we can emphasize the idea that being a female athlete is empowering, like the physiology that enables us to be strong athletes is cool. And the more that we can use that language to talk about being an athlete, I think it will lead to stronger performances and then stronger and longer careers in sports.”

Roche also emphasizes the studies themselves, adding female subjects and ensuring the studies are rigorous.

“We just need to make sure that we're providing the most rigorous scientific evidence for female athletes,” she says, before referring back to the Pac-12 study. “We did a seven-year prospective study at Stanford and UCLA called The Healthy Runner Project. And then because of the success in implementing that study, we were able to roll it out to the rest of the Pac-12. The goal over time is to make that nutrition education intervention an NCAA-wide program.”

The results were alarming: Athletes were already entering college at a high risk for bone stress injury.

“It was almost too late to have those conversations,” Roche says. “It's never too late, but it was certainly like we could have had these conversations earlier. A big part of the Pac-12 research is establishing and including athletes, but then also thinking about out how we can have similar conversations with high school athletes as well, because high school is truly the time that athletes are setting up their body developmentally for a long term career in sport. The more that we can make athletes think about the long term process of being an athlete in high school, the better.”

Over the next four months, the five-part video series for high school athletes will roll out as a pilot study to see if it can be expanded into a larger study. The researchers are also creating educational content. Once the research is completed, the plan is to make the findings accessible for athletes, parents, coaches and others.

Once the FASTR program’s findings are digested, female athletes will be on a more level playing field when it comes to scientific data that guides their journeys. Until then, there are still certain tenants that help fuel success. Fuel well. Rest properly. And be consistent with training.

Often athletes want the quick-fix elixir: an intense training plan that will spur improvement.

“In working with athletes in research and in coaching, what I've seen is that it's really about the long-term process,” she says. “It's thinking about what are the next 3, 5, 10, 15 years of an athletic life. And oftentimes, that boils down to treating the body well. So fueling well, making sure you're fueling enough and supporting, doing strength training to provide a strong foundation for the body and giving the body the overall TLC that it needs.”

And don’t forget the mental side.

“The body is both mental and physical health too, because physical health and mental health are so inextricably linked that it's prioritizing physical health and prioritizing mental to be able to have a long career in sport,” she says. “Because moving our bodies, being athletes each day is what this is all about. And the more that we can prioritize that and trigger bodies well, the better.”

Speed drill

Name: Megan Roche

Hometown: Boulder, Colo.

Number of years running: 10

How many miles a week do you typically run: 75

Point of pride: Taking paths less traveled in life, such as choosing to focus on research/science instead of practicing medicine after medical school

Favorite race distance: 50K on trails

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Oatmeal with lots of maple syrup and blueberries.

Favorite piece of gear: Bone conduction headphones to hear trail sounds and Beyonce.

Who inspires you: My mom, she’s an energetic and resilient life boss.

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Shake it Out by Florence + the Machine

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “BELIEVE” -Ted Lasso

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

Instagram: @meg_runs_happy on IG



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