3 unexpected benefits from a Women’s Running Camp

Women’s running is in the midst of a boom. Actually it’s been described as the second running boom, the first led by men, the current one now led by women. In 2011, 54% of runners taking part in a road race were women, an impressive increase from 25% in 1990. (Data from Running USA). It is anticipated that women will  reach 60% of all race participants in the not too distant future. A recent Competitor magazine feature summed it up eloquently: “Beginning as a man’s sport that sidelined women because of the “scientific” evidence that it was physically unhealthy for women to run, running as a sport today is dominated by women of all ages, races, body types and running abilities.”

Running camps have also grown in popularity , especially for high school and college age athletes. We saw that there was a market for camps that catered specifically for adult women runners, our first camp taking place over a 3 day weekend in May 2007. Since then we have grown our number of camp offerings in Estes Park, CO, to 4 one week  camps in 2013. Future developments include longer camps, up to 10 days, and camps in other locations.

The camps started life with a focus on training, running form, information about stretching, some talk about gear, and sharing wholesome, healthy food in a relaxed convivial atmosphere. Of course there was also the chance to run on some gorgeous trails in one of the most inspiring training terrain anywhere in the World! Since those humble beginnings in 2007, the camps have grown to take a very different shape and content from the original camp format. Successive campers have wanted to discuss not only the physiological gains, increasingly also the psychological components of what makes us tick as runners. It started with talking about how to keep motivated, prepare for races mentally, and what we should be thinking in order to race at the peak of one’s performance. It also struck me that close to 100% of campers came with a limited sense of what they could achieve as a runner, and left with a huge boost of self confidence, and new ideas of what was truly possible for them.

womens-camp-3Now we include sessions where we video running form, giving many women runners the first ever chance to see themselves run! Workshops on self belief, nutrition, goal setting & action plans, making healthy snacks, preventing injury, & guided visualization give the women campers a range of tools that inform not only their running, it has also created life changing possibilities.

Each camp is different as the dynamic between the participants changes, however, there are three factors that weave a common thread through the fabric of each and every camp.

Run faster

It may seem like an obvious benefit from a running camp – after all, running faster is likely to be a key goal for every woman that attends. What has come as a surprise though is how quickly and how much faster some of the campers have improved their race performances!
During the camps we video the women running, and then give feedback on how their running form could be improved to reduce stress, increasing efficiency and increasing endurance capacity. One of the key components we focus on is cadence, with an emphasis on establishing a higher cadence to bring the foot-plant closer to the center of mass, and reduce any braking component in stride. Simply increasing cadence, once the runner has gone through a transition process, can significantly reduce stress and increase efficiency, meaning pace and endurance also increase.
Another factor that we work on is slowing down to be able to race faster. Most runners tend to train at their long easy run pace at too fast a pace to help build their endurance base as effectively as possible. In many cases slowing down that long easy run pace can mean their race pace increases.
Lastly, running up here in the mountains has a profound psychological impact on everyone. It is hard not to be inspired by the majesty of the mountains here – the dramatic landscape, the clean clear air and the wonderful climate reconnect many runners with the joy of running on these glorious trails. This joy is bonded to running, and every runner takes this joy back with them when they return and run back at home. Each run at home gives an opportunity for the joy to resurface whenever they run. This concept goes a long way to explaining why we have had runners improve their half marathon time by between 5 and 13 minutes! The research suggests that physiological benefits over one week would not account for that level of improvement – it also gives us a lot of joy to hear of campers reaching new heights with their running!

New friends

One of the things about a women’s camp that amazes me as a man, is the way the women runners make friends and bond so quickly. Pretty much everyone arrive as strangers, yet often leave as if they had known each other for many years.  Pretty much every camp ends with the women actively planning a reunion at a race in the year ahead. Often the races chosen are women only races, like the Women’s Running Half Marathon series, providing a wonderful atmosphere focused on the power and strength of women’s running.
I think it’s also fair to say that women are incredibly supportive of each other..we have had many tears at the end of a camp when we share what we have all appreciated about each other. There has been minimal criticism of each other, and amazing support for the heartaches and troubles that each of the campers have experienced.
One example of what stronMay camp pinkg friendships can develop came this year at the May camp. Five women arrived, each having had a very different journey to this point, and a common love of running. They rapidly discovered they had far more in common that just a love of running, and had an amazing time becoming great friends on the way. To give you an idea of how much fun this group of women had, they decided to all buy a pair of pink shorts from a store in downtown Estes Park, and then gave us a fashion show that evening amidst much laughing and frivolity! Picture memory on left..
The same group have not only decided to all take part in a race later this year, they also want to come back for the May camp next year and do it all over again!

This is what one of the women from the May 2013 camp had to say about her camp experience: “Most of all, however, the 5 women who were strangers at first truly connected.  We all truly supported one another with love and compassion. There was none of the cattiness or competitiveness that often happens when you put a group of women together.  All of us are going through and working through a difficult time in our lives and we were able to talk about it and process it with one another.  There was no judgement; only love and support.
It truly was a life-changing experience. The 5 of us have already planned our reunion….at a marathon in Baton Rouge.  We have made life-long friends and will continue running and supporting one another.  Meeting these incredible women from around the country ( and one was from Canada) was the most rewarding part of the camp experience.

A new you

There are few rewards in life greater than seeing someone that you know has potential, but doesn’t realize it yet, and then seeing them begin to realize it. To be a part of that metamorphosis, to see the growth in a human being and to see them start to challenge their limits, is a huge reward for a coach. Here are 2 examples of women runners that have shifted their worlds and become much more than they ever thought they could.
The first runner is a very successful business woman – very driven focused, and extremely confident in her role. She contacted me about a May camp, saying that she wasn’t really a runner, but wanted to come to camp and see what she could do. After speaking with her, I came up with a program that would enable her to be in shape ready for the start of the camp. She arrived, and although feeling intimidated by the faster women around her, she gave it a shot. With much encouragement from the coaching team and the rest of the women campers, she completed the week in fine style, completing the long endurance run, all with a glint in her eye, so that everyone knew that she was beginning to change her own vision of herself as a runner. After camp she ran a number of 10K’s back at home, often placing in her age group, and winning her age group at least once! Two months after camp, she sent me an e-mail with the subject line, “I’m a runner”, and sent it to all the women on the camp as well – she had certainly arrived and claimed her true identity as a runner, something she had been disconnected from for many years! Just recently she ran her first ever half marathon, and continues to seek new challenges for herself as a runner.
Another runner contacted us shortly before our camp in May 2012. She had a dream of qualifying for the mountain running team for her country, and wanted to know if the camp would be able to help her. After speaking with her she decided to attend. That camp started a journey that did end up with her qualifying for the World Mountain Running Championships in Italy that year. It was wonderful to see the growth in her confidence and self belief, and the delight she experienced in seeing her dream come true. From humble acorns…
These are just two examples from many stories that have come from these camps. Both examples show how when we get out of our own way, we can achieve incredible things. Very often the only thing that is holding us back from achieving greatness is the limits we place on ourselves, afraid to let our own brilliance shine through. Marianne Williamson summed this up very well:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
From A Return to Love, 1992.

Active at Altitude has 4 women’s running camps for 2013, places are available for the September 8-15 camp – in 2014 more camps will be announced, covering Level I camps for beginner and intermediate runners, and Level II camps for more experienced runners. See details of the 2013 camps at this link
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