Fuel Your Body & Mind
with Elise Cranny
21 Sep, 2020 · Track and Field
Elise Cranny, Professional Runner, speaks openly about her incredible journey in sport and provides invaluable insights surrounding nutrition, body image, periods, injuries, and confidence.
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Welcome to the Voice In Sport Podcast. I'm your host, Stef Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional, and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice. At Voice In Sport, we share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all to keep playing and change more than just the game.
Today, our guest is Elise Cranny, a professional runner for the Bowerman Track Club and a VIS League member. Elise is a former Division 1 athlete at Stanford University, where she was a 12 time All-American and four time runner up at the NCAA championships. In our episode today, Elise takes us through her journey from being inspired by her parents who were triathletes to playing multiple sports, and how both have helped shape her success in running.
Elise openly discusses the struggles that she has faced with being a female athlete, as it relates to nutrition, her body, and injuries. She emphasizes the importance of appreciating our own individual journeys, our own individual bodies, and finding confidence in ourselves. We go through a lot as female athletes and we must embrace the change. Elise shares with us her stories and how she did it. Elise, welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast.
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Yeah, thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Let's start with your journey. You're one of the first runners that we've had on the podcast, and you have made it to a really high level at the Nike Bowerman Track Club. So, tell us about when you started running, what other sports you played and your journey all the way up to the Nike Bowerman Track Club.
I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. Both my parents were very involved in triathlons and specifically Ironman triathlons growing up. So, my two younger sisters and I would accompany them to a lot of races, and I would actually often go back later at night between the hours of 10 and midnight, and just see people of all ages and all different backgrounds finishing this grueling 15 to 17-hour long race and was really inspired by the world of endurance sports at a pretty young age. My sisters and I were all put into swimming pretty early. Then I joined the track team starting in middle school, kind of all the different events. I tried hurdling, and long jumping, and then found that the mile was my sweet spot. In eighth grade, I joined the cross-country team and just really loved running for a team, loved longer the neighborhood runs we would do.
In high school, I did cross country in the fall, but still didn't want to give up soccer quite yet. Coach Mo, who as a track coach, convinced me to do track my freshman year. I'd say that's when I really started getting more serious into running. I also had a great assistant cross-country coach, who really opened my eyes to the whole world of running and the opportunities that would be available there. And then I actually continued to swim throughout high school, because I still felt relatively fresh and new into running. When I entered college, I felt like I was making a lot of progress and learning a lot about the sport, which I think is what allowed me to continue to find fulfillment in the sport.
So, at what point did you narrow down to just one sport? How old were you?
I was 18. So, when I went to college. And I would honestly say that a huge piece of running now for me is having done all those different sports and gained strength and athleticism and moving in lateral and different directions, like in soccer, or having that cardiovascular fitness in swimming. That was just really helpful in not pounding my body and my legs.
You had a coach named Mo that opened your eyes to the track world, but did you ever have a coach that told you, you should really stop one of those sports? And what advice would you have to girls that might be facing the same thing?
I don't know if I really had that pressure necessarily in high school. I think what I would say to younger runners or younger girls in general is you make so many gains in strength and athleticism when you do so many different sports, and I actually think that makes you better in the long run. Especially in the running world, because you develop later, as a runner, and the consistency and the strength comes through so much later than a lot of other sports. You need to have that consistency and longevity in the sport to be successful at it. I think that experimenting with different sports and not being so narrowly focused on running in the beginning is huge.
I think that's a great message to send to girls out there that might be feeling pressured. So, you then went on to Stanford and after four years, you had 12 All-American titles and two PAC-12 championships. It's pretty incredible. So, as you went into that college experience, what do you think best prepared you?
The assistant cross-country coach, Jason Hartman, who ended up coaching me for the rest of high school, was huge. I think having someone that has confidence and belief in you, and kind of sees you at the next level, or sees where you can be before you can see yourself there, was really crucial. Especially throughout my whole college career, staying in contact with him and him continuing to tell me that he had confidence and that belief in me and what he saw in me as a freshman in high school- I think is something that really carried me through. I struggled with injury a bit, and that can lead to struggles with motivation. Just always having him there and speaking to what he saw in me at such a young age and that fire in there that you have, no matter what you've gone through, I think was something that was really crucial for me.
You mentioned confidence, and that's such an important part for young girls in their journey through sport. How do you maintain that confidence when you're going into a whole new environment with a whole new crew of teammates? You're all of a sudden on this platform with girls that are four years older than you but expected to compete with and against those girls. So how do you come in with that confidence, and then keep it?
It's definitely hard to do, and I think it's something that needs to be continually worked on. I like the analogy, with the mind is like a muscle and you have to continue to train it and work at it. I think at times, if my confidence slipped a little bit, it feels like, Oh, I'm moving backwards, but you're not. It's just part of the journey. And it’s part of cultivating that confidence is something that you need to continue to do and continue to work on, no matter what level you are in in the sport. As a professional now, it's something that I'm still working on.
And I think looking back, I would have thought, Oh, Elise by the time you've graduated and you’re a professional, you have the confidence and everything figured out. I think it's definitely still something that you're always working on, but I would say hold on to the confidence or the belief in yourself that you get when you're first learning a sport and you're seeing yourself make huge improvements. Visualize that, and always hold on to that. See yourself when you felt strong and powerful and unstoppable.
There are a few high school races that I would continually go back to when I was in college, even when you're thrown in with people that are three, four years older than you, just picturing how you felt so strong in that race and putting yourself in it. And when you enter college, or you're competing or training with people that may be better than you or older than you, just seeing it as an opportunity to grow. Don't be afraid to put yourself in it. Even if that means not finishing the workout for the first couple full of times, the more you come back without letting it tear down that confidence, then you will get to that level.
How you view the older people on the team, when you didn't see where they were freshman year, it can be easy to think, Oh, it was just always easy for them, but they also had to go through these growing and learning curves, and this is all part of the sport.
You're also touching on comparing yourself to other people, and this idea of confidence and comparing yourself to others. When you're in the competitive environment, you naturally go there again, and when you start comparing yourself to other people, it can be challenging. Confidence and body image go hand in hand. And so, I want to talk about the ideal runner body type that I think is in the minds of a lot people who look in and they say, Oh yeah, everybody's this type, and you can't be a great runner if you're not this specific body type. And then there's girls that are seeing the same image and maybe stop running because they don't see themselves in this sport. I want to hear from your perspective. Is there really this ideal runner body, and what have you experienced in the running community?
No, there is not one ideal runner type at all, but I definitely think that that's really easy to get caught up in. Especially if you're watching the pro running scene, or even collegiate runners and you're a young girl, looking up to those runners. It's easy to think that there's one body type, because you're looking at people that have been running tons of miles for 10 to 15 to 20 years. And their body also just looks different- someone who's 25 or 30 has a very different body than someone whose body is growing and changing, and even different than someone who's 15 years old or 12 years old or 10 years old. The comparison piece is so hard, but it's such a waste of energy because there's so many different factors. There’s different ages, different hormones that you have going through your body at different ages.
What I've tried to do is focus on the parts of my body that I feel are most strong and kind of changing the perspective a bit. Focusing more on how you feel in training or when you're running instead of how you look. Do you feel strong doing this workout? It doesn't matter what your body looks like compared to someone else. Cause you feel strong doing it. And you're completing the workout and you're running the best you have. So not trying to have a body that looks like someone else, if you're feeling that strength and power and you’re improving for yourself.
There you have it girls, because Elise has been in this community of running her whole life, and she's seen body types all across the board be very successful in running. So, I want to talk about RED-S. I know this is something in the running community that is an issue. And so, can you explain briefly what RED-S is and how it's extremely detrimental to athletes?
RED-S stands for relative energy deficiency in sports. It has to do with this cycle of disordered eating, loss of period and loss of bone density. It's definitely a big problem in the running world, and I would just say in the athletic community in general, and I definitely think it's something that needs to be talked about more. Basically, it's when your energy output is greater than your energy input. So, your body, your muscles, your bones, just isn't getting the energy and then nutrients that it needs to support your training and what you're asking your body to do.
So, tell us about your experience with RED-S. Did you ever have it, and how did it affect your running?
Yes, I experienced it through the end of high school, and then the first probably year and a half of college. It's something that you think you are eating and training in a way that's sustainable, but it will eventually catch up with you.
And I think that's what I realized my freshman year. I increased my mileage a lot and the intensity of the work was much greater, and I was pretty heavily restricting my eating, and was just not getting the nutrients that I need to support that training. It was just so detrimental to my training and performance, but also mental health, happiness, and life in general.
When your body and your brain aren't getting what you need, it's really hard to focus in school. You're just more irritable. You are just more unhappy in general because your body isn't fueled properly. For me, when I was spending all of that energy restricting what I was eating, that also gave me way less energy in training and in competing. You know, you don't have that extra edge when the race gets hard, because it's I had spent so much energy internally thinking about what I'm eating and Oh, I shouldn't have this and overthinking. That takes away from your training. We talked about, earlier, confidence in yourself, because body image and confidence go so hand in hand.
I would say the biggest problem with not getting enough energy is then you lose your period. And when you don't have your period and you don't have the normal estrogen, progesterone hormones that your body needs to function, you start to lose bone density too, which makes you more prone to injury.
So, I think that's when I realized, when I first got injured my sophomore year and I had a stress fracture in my back, that's when I realized, okay, something's going on here. I’m having a problem with bone density because I can't handle the impact,
So, what was the moment that you realized the lack of fuel? Or did somebody recognize it for you?
Starting in high school, my mom started to recognize it. I wasn't getting a regular period. We have this conversation a lot now, even she says she wishes she could stand up on a mountain and talk to all the parents of athletes and tell them how important it is to get your period, because it's something that shockingly just isn't talked about as much as it should be. She thought, Oh yeah, it's not great that she's not getting her period, but I think with the link between eating, loss of period, and bone density, and just overall health, this is really a problem, and something that should be talked about more. It's also hard too, because, as I said earlier, it's not sustainable, but for a while you run pretty well and it works. And I think it's hard, even if people are telling you, that you should be getting your period.
I don't think I was in necessarily a spot to be fully listening and hearing that, because I was like, I'm running well, something must be working until, like I said, you get injured and then you realize, Whoa, okay. This was all bubbling below the surface the whole time. I was not okay. Not healthy like I thought I was.
What would you say to the girls if they're getting pressure from a coach to not eat as much or to hit a certain weight, which obviously can feed this problem, especially in those early years where you're really developing?
I would say it's just not worth it. I often think if a coach or someone is telling them that, that the focus is too narrow. So, I would advise to have a longer-term view and open your eyes for overall long-term health, but even just longevity in sport in general. Maybe you drop a couple seconds in a race one season if you lose a couple of pounds, it's just not worth the unhappiness, the injury that's going to ensue. You're more likely to have burnout and lose the joy in the sport. And you also start to not feel as strong and powerful and empowered, which is such a big part of sport.
Having that feeling of conquering and testing your limits- that's such an incredible feeling that you get in the sport, and just hold onto the feeling of strength and empowerment and try to really focus and hang onto that instead of thinking about losing weight or maybe feeling more frail and more on the brink of breaking.
Know that you have power in your own decisions and there are other people out there that can help you train and walking away from one coach is not going to ruin your career.
That's something that I struggled with in the beginning, especially in high school. Any sort of coach or anyone, I would just take whatever they said, and do all of it. I think that's part of the learning and growing process in sport too, is figuring out what works for you.
And so, if someone tells you something, like you said, seek another person's advice or talk it through with a teammate or a parent or a different coach, so you're really making sure that you're getting those positive thought patterns and positive behaviors and habits in running.
If this is happening so much with young female runners, what can we do to prevent this from happening?
I think it just needs to be talked about more. It's a lot more common than people like to think or talk about. And I think in college, I really learned my junior and senior year when I started talking to younger athletes, that a lot of people were having a very similar experience. And so, I think whether that be talking about it, having a coach talk about it more, or even bringing a parent in to talk to a team about it.
That's something that would have been beneficial in high school is talking to the entire girls’ team. Again, whether that be from a female coach or a female parent, just more awareness to the signs and symptoms, so maybe we can recognize it or recognize it in other people and help teammates who we think, Oh, maybe they're going down a path of restrictive eating, so hopefully we can prevent the injuries before they happen.
For the girls that are maybe far down the path and they have RED-S and they haven't had their period for three or four months: how do you come back from that? How do you recover? What is the advice to take the right steps to get back on track and be in a healthy place?
The first thing I would say is it's never too late. I thought when I missed my period for multiple years, I was like, oh no, bone density- it's done and, there's only a certain amount of period that you can gain bone density, but you can still do it.
And people just told me, you just need to get your period back. That's the biggest thing. So, the biggest piece of advice I would say is get your period back. And whether that means slightly bring your training down just a little bit and increasing your caloric intake. Specifically healthy fats, I would say were a big thing for me. More coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, things like that. Just to really make sure your body is getting the fat that it needs to provide energy. It's never too late to start to make those changes. And I would also say don't give up when you're making those changes.
I think sometimes once you make those changes, you may not get your period right away. It may take longer. You may continue to get a few injuries. After my first injury, I still had three more bone injuries after that. And I think there were times when it was super frustrating, because I was like, I've got my period back. I'm eating healthy fats. I am being cognizant of not overtraining. Why am I still getting injured? But sometimes once you've had RED-S for a while, you're in a little bit of a hole. And sometimes it just takes a bit of time to get out of that hole.
Don't give up and don't change the course. You're doing it healthy way. So, stick to that, because I would say now a couple years removed from my last injury, I'm training at a high intensity and doing mileage that I never thought my body would be able to handle given where it was three years ago.
So, it may take a lot of time and patience and work, but you will be a completely different athlete on the other side, and you will feel so much stronger. And what makes me happiest now is I know that I'm doing it the right way. I know I'm not taking shortcuts or on the brink of breaking again. I know that my body is strong and sturdy and powerful and making progress, doing it the right way.
It's very inspiring to see you at the top of your game and you've come out of that. You have made it through. And you're on one of the best teams in the world. So, to the girls out there that might think that there's no choice, there is a choice and look at Elise.
Yes, there was a choice and it's so worth it. I'm just a much happier person too. When you're not spending that energy restricting or worrying about things and you're getting the hormones that you need, you’re just a happier, stronger, more confident person. So, stick with it.
To recap what you said, in order to get through that transition of RED-S and move past it is to look at three things. One is looking at your nutrition and really evaluating, are you getting the right fuel for your body? The second thing is looking at your mental health, making sure that that's part of the equation and part of the conversation, especially as it relates to body image, your performance, your journey of coming back. And the third thing would be the support system that you mentioned. So, ensuring that you have a strong support system of people who are going to recognize that you're not in a good spot and then are going to help you get back to a better spot.
Yeah. I think the support system is so important. Even just being open and sharing with their support system so they can hold you accountable is so important. Cause I think it can be hard to change habits or even just remember, Oh, I should be eating more healthy fats or am I really prioritizing my nutrition still?
I think when you've gotten in a bad habit, it can be hard to switch that. So, it's good to, again, confide in teammates or coaches or parents who can be that continual reminder and keep you on the right track.
Since our podcast is really all about talking about the untold stories, let's talk about birth control. A lot of runners really talk about, and they ask the questions to our community: Should we be on birth control as a runner? And as you look back at your journey, would you recommend that young female athletes have birth control? What is your point of view on that?
Everyone's case is different but for me personally, it's been recommended not to, just because it can cover up some of the symptoms of RED-S. We're really lucky as females actually, to have our period. It's such a tool for us because it's an indicator of whether or not we're getting enough energy. If you lose your period, your energy output is greater than your input. And it's a really great tool to have that. You have a telling sign of is your body getting what it needs? So, a little bit of the complicated nature of birth control is that when you're on it, you may be covering up whether or not you're getting a natural period. It may not be clear to tell if your hormones are at the right levels.
So I would just say, if you do need to be on birth control, to really be aware of that and be extra cognizant of making sure you're getting the nutrition that you need because it can cover that up and make it seem like you're getting a period if maybe it's not necessarily coming from your nutrition, but from the synthetic hormones and the birth control.
If you could go back in time and change one thing in your running journey, what would it be?
I think I would fight my body a little bit less and celebrate the strength and the things that allow me to run. And my body allows me to run fast. And I think I would focus more on the muscles or the parts of my body that really power me forward.
I would say, especially for young females, as you're going through puberty and your body's changing and you're getting your period- don't fight that. And don't be afraid of that. You're going to change. And I think for a while, I was running really fast in high school and I thought that's what I need to look like.
And I look very different from when I did in high school and everyone should, because college and beyond is a time when your body is changing so much, and not being afraid of that change or trying to fight it. I think I just wasted way too much time and energy that could've been spent toward training or friendships or so many other things.
It's out of your control. And I think changing your perspective and seeing, Hey, I'm growing and developing, getting older, and I'm going to be that much stronger and powerful with this body that's slightly different, because I don't want to look like I did in middle school or high school for the rest of my life, and celebrating that body change instead of trying stop it from happening. The body's beautiful, let it change and let it grow and develop, and you'll be stronger on the other side.
Full circle back to how we started. The top runners around the world do have these different body types. So, thank you so much sharing that, and it's been an absolute pleasure to have you on the Voice In Sport podcast. I'd like to end with just one piece of advice you have for all female athletes today.
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I would say, don't waste energy on the things you can't control and really embrace your story and your journey and who you are. Don't compare to others on their journey. Everyone's at a different spot. I forget where I heard this, but I've held onto it for a lot of years, because I really liked it. Thinking about your own story, your own journey as a book and when you're comparing to others: You might be on chapter two of your book, and they might be on chapter 10, and it doesn't make sense to compare to them, because they're at a different point in their journey, you know? Even if they're the same age as you or they're doing the same sport. Everyone's at such a different point. Embrace your journey and celebrate your own story and share that with others. Listen to other people's stories and journey, because everyone is different, but unique and amazing in its own way.
Even if you have a bunch of different people trying to get to the same place, the way they got there so much different. I think celebrating those differences and learning from other people and sharing the differences is what's so incredible about sport, and life in general.
Thank you so much, Elise, for coming to the Voice In Sport podcast, it was a true pleasure. We're excited to see your continuing training and where it leads you.
Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
Thank you, Elise, we truly appreciate that you shared your personal journey in sport with us. Discussing the important topics of nutrition, body image, and confidence isn't always easy, but we know it will help so many of us. Thank you for reminding us also to avoid comparison and to celebrate our bodies.
You can follow Elise on Instagram @elise.cranny. You can also follow Voice In Sport on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. And if you're interested in joining our community, as a member of VIS, you will receive access to exclusive content by our VIS Creators, mentorship from the VIS League, which includes pro athletes like Elise Cranny, and advocacy tools.
Check out voiceinsport.com and sign up. Please subscribe to the Voice In Sport podcasts and give us a rating. And if you're interested and passionate about accelerating sports, science, and research on the female athletic body, check out voiceinsportfoundation.org to get involved.
Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creators™ Liz Boyer and Anya Miller