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“Go train with the boys.” Faster than all the other girls on the team, this was something Neely Spence Gracey heard from her coaches time and again in her earliest days of training. She quickly became accustomed to receiving the same advice as the boys.
It wasn’t until many years later that Gracey–who is now a pro athlete and coach–started wondering about the learning opportunities she might have missed as a young female runner. She wasn’t trained with an approach that even recognized, let alone leveraged the characteristics unique to female physiology.
In college, Gracey didn’t feel like she could talk to her male coaches about female-specific issues—and they certainly didn’t broach those topics with her. So, she ended up navigating them on her own. As a communications major who was also pursuing a minor in coaching, Gracey made another discovery: all the information out there about coach-athlete communication was focused on the dynamics between males.
For Gracey, that was when the idea for her new book Breakthrough Women’s Running began taking shape in her mind.
Cindy Kuzma, Gracey’s coauthor, says it was through her work as a journalist that her eyes were opened to the differences between female and male physiology. Kuzma, a freelance writer, author, and podcaster is also a runner and after writing an article about Tina Muir’s journey with amenorrhea in 2017, she was struck by the number of factors that exclusively affect runners with female physiology. Not only were these issues not being discussed, but until very recently they weren’t even being researched. So when Kuzma and Gracey were given the opportunity to address them in a book, they jumped at the chance.
Breakthrough Women’s Running, which launched on April 20th, is colorful, interactive, and filled with compelling insights, recipes, training plans, and stories featuring elite athletes. It immediately feels different from other training books out there and for many reasons, is a must-read for female runners.
Tackling Topics That Are Still Considered Taboo or Uncomfortable
Menstruation is a topic that’s not only long been considered “TMI,” but also one that many women view in a negative light. But, the authors hope that after reading the chapter “Master Your Cycle,” women will come away feeling inspired, empowered, and wholeheartedly believing something Gracey and Kuzma both emphasize: Having your period is a signal that your body is healthy and handling the workload you’re giving it. In their book, it’s described as a “huge gift of female physiology.”
The role of menstrual cycles in running was a significant catalyst in both authors’ journeys to fully appreciating female-focused training. Years before Kuzma was reporting about menstruation and running, she used an IUD, which prevented her from getting her period. As a result, when she began getting stress fractures from running, she wasn’t able to gauge her body’s health through menstruation and instead had to explore other avenues to get to the cause of it. This, she told me, was one of the experiences that ignited her passion for educating women about female-specific health issues.
When Gracey stopped getting her period in college, she was told by doctors that it was a normal condition for female athletes and that menstruation would resume as soon as she stopped running. Yet, Gracey knew deep down that it wasn’t true and eventually found the cause, which had nothing to do with her athletic training. Years later, as Gracey tracked her period on her own and then studied it in relation to how she felt during training, it became clear to her that her cycle and hormones impacted her performance and her ability to recover. She soon discovered that racing during the time she had her period actually helped her run stronger and faster. Now, in addition to the mental benefit of no longer fearing racing while menstruating, the physical power her body gives her during her period boosts her confidence.
Gracey and Kuzma hope their book will help debunk the myth that the only way for female athletes to handle their periods is to control them or skip them through birth control. Instead, they want to empower female runners to capitalize on the times in their cycles when they feel most primed to crush races and hard runs.
They also want to chip away at the taboo surrounding the discussion of menstruation. With more research out there from experts like exercise physiologist Dr. Stacy Sims whose knowledge is highlighted in the book—as well as the existence of more female-only training groups and more female and male coaches who are talking about it with their athletes—Kuzma says, “We are in a great spot to be able to share this information now and there are people out there who are open and willing and ready to hear it.”
Although not quite as taboo as menstruation, running through pregnancy and motherhood is an issue that’s only recently been addressed by coaches, doctors, and exercise scientists. Gracey, a mother herself, learned even more about the topic as she was working on the book. She became pregnant with her second child while she was writing the chapter, “Ready, Set, Grow.”
Gracey says that during her first pregnancy, she craved a concrete path that would help her get back to running competitively after she gave birth. When she didn’t find one, she talked to other pro runners who returned to competition after giving birth and was struck by how different each journey was—not only between mothers, but also between pregnancies for the same mother. After experiencing two pregnancies herself, Gracey finally understood why there isn’t a single formula out there, one that tells expecting mothers, as she put it,“You do ABC and you get what you want.”
So, in Breakthrough Women’s Running, Gracey identifies truths that are broad enough to apply to most mothers and expecting mothers. In addition to several informative sections, including “A Runner’s Registry,” “All About Breastfeeding,” and “Mama Mindset,” the chapter includes a list of common complications, divided into those that are normal and those that indicate the need for further medical treatment.
In the book, Gracey sums up her feelings about motherhood and running: “[T]his phase doesn’t represent the end or even a step away from your career as an athlete. Rather, it places you firmly in the center of an even bigger, more beautiful running story.” She believes motherhood shouldn’t be an uncomfortable discussion in the sport and that, in fact, “It’s the next great frontier.”
Turning a Frequently Addressed Issue on Its Head
Unlike menstrual cycles, disordered eating is a topic we’ve been reading about for years. Knowing this, the authors felt it was important to address it in a chapter about nutrition. That said, as the name of the chapter, “Feed Your Fire,” indicates, they were deliberate about framing it in a way that emphasizes health and empowerment. They hope, through sharing the experiences of not only Gracey, but also that of elite runner, Starla Garcia, they’ll leave readers with specific strategies and tangible tools to help them refocus on well-being. “It’s another way,” Kuzma says, “that we can continue to contribute to and and shift the conversation [around disordered eating].”
Featuring Garcia, an Olympic Trials marathoner and dietician who is rewriting nutrition rules, does just that. Garcia’s specialty is combining “intuitive eating, sports nutrition, and a focus on culture to help runners reach their goals.” Garcia, at one time, struggled with negative messages she received about foods from her own culture, including tortillas and tamales. Now, she believes healthy eating can—and should—incorporate foods that are important to a runner’s cultural identity. Garcia, the authors write, is determined to “blaze a path forward for other women of color.”
A Window Into Neely Spence Gracey’s Secrets to Success
When asked to talk about her coaching, Gracey’s face instantly lit up. It’s clear she’s passionate about it—and it shines through on every page of the book. Not only is her voice motivating, even when addressing some of the sport’s toughest realities, but her method of breaking big dreams down into manageable goals and daily habits is inspiring in its simplicity. Each chapter ends with a section that identifies three possible barriers readers might be facing and offers small breakthrough goals to help them make progress in overcoming them.
In another chapter titled “Breathe Better,” Gracey reveals the power of syncing your breath to your steps. “[T]his is one of my biggest secrets to success,” she writes, sharing that through her breathing, she can measure pace and distance without a GPS. The concept is eye-opening, yet simple, and requires just a little patience to figure out what works best for you.
Gracey says, out of all the advice she gives in the book, the knowledge she shares in the chapter, “Exercise Your Brain,” is what benefits her own coaching clients the most. In it, she discusses visualizing races, creating mantras, and other methods to tackle your running goals while living the kind of full life that so many women lead.
Turning Resetting into a Training Goal
In almost every chapter, the authors share wisdom related to resetting—a recurring theme in Breakthrough Women’s Running—whether it’s having the courage to evolve big goals, allowing yourself to wallow after an injury, or rising to the occasion when everything goes wrong on race morning.
Gracey and Kuzma say the retiration of resetting was intentional. Gracey wants runners of all levels to understand that in order to reach a breakthrough, it’s crucial to know when to push and when to step back.
Staying true to her motivational style, she talks about achieving five minutes of walking while pregnant or changing marathon time goals to slower ones in the same way she talks about digging deep and surging to a breakthrough PR on a perfect day. When coming back from a setback, she writes, “your goal shouldn’t be to reclaim who you were before. Rather, it’s all about becoming your best self in the life and the body you’re living in right now.”
“Changing your goals and accounting for setbacks and blossoming after them” is an inevitable part of every runner’s story, says Kuzma. Those are the very things that will make that story “all the better in the end.”
It’s a Book You Can Turn to Again and Again
Breakthrough Women’s Running isn’t a book female runners will read only once. It’s a book made for highlighters and sticky notes, for flipping back and forth between chapters, and for taking off the shelf every month of every year. It’s a book that encourages us to rethink breakthroughs. As Kuzma says, “a breakthrough is a big accomplishment that is meaningful to you. And no matter where you’re at in your running, where you have been before, and where you want to go, this book can help get you [to that breakthrough].”
It’s the book Gracey wishes she had way back when she was training with the boys—a companion for all female runners as we navigate the triumphs and heartbreaks of training. As the authors remind us, “It’s all part of the journey of this tough and beautiful sport.”